Ringing a bell: 11 common phrases and terms that came from obsolete technology

Long after a piece of technology has faded from use, it can live on in the phrasing and terminology it inspired

Most technology becomes obsolete sooner or later. But just because a particular piece of tech is no longer in our lives, doesn’t mean it isn’t still with us in some ways. One of the ways in which technology can leave a lasting, but less obvious, impact is in changes it makes to the way we speak. New terminology and phrases can sprout from technology, be incorporated into our daily language and remain in use well beyond the lifecycle of the thing that inspired them. Here are 11 examples of terms and phrases many of us still use which were derived from technology that has since become obsolete.


Current usage: A panel in the front of car with controls and instrumentation for use by the driver. Also, an administration tool on a web page or in a piece of software.

Derived from: Horse-drawn carriages

Derivation: A dashboard was originally a barrier, usually made of wood, in the front of a horse-drawn carriage to protect the driver from dirt and mud being “dashed up” by the horses.

In the limelight

Current usage: To be at the center of attention.

Derived from: Drummond lights

Derivation: Limelights, also known as calcium or Drummond lights, were lighting systems first created by Thomas Drummond for use in surveying in 1825 which generated strong illumination by using an oxyhydrogen flame to heat a cylinder of calcium oxide (quicklime). Limelights were used in theaters in the mid and late 19th century to highlight solo performers on stage.

A flash in the pan

Current usage: A person or thing that appears very promising but turns out to be disappointing.

Derived from: Flintlock firearms

Derivation: In order to fire a flintlock musket in the 1700s, a small pan of gunpowder on the gun was ignited with a flint. Ideally, that would ignite the main charge which would then fire the bullet. Sometimes, though, the initial charge would simply flash in the pan and fail to discharge the weapon.

Heard it through the grapevine

Current usage: To learn something, which is possibly inaccurate or untrue, informally through rumors or gossip.

Derived from: Telegraph wires

Derivation: Commercial telegraphs in the United States came into wide use after Samuel Morse sent the first telegram over a long distance in 1844. During the American Civil War, telegraph lines were often hung haphazardly in a way that reminded people of grapevines. During the war, “grapevine telegraphs” were used to quickly communicate information. However, the information was often unreliable due to both intentional deception and technical disruption.

Radio buttons

Current usage: A common element on web forms to select only one of several predefined options.

Derived from: Old radios, especially those used in cars

Derivation: Back in the day, radios, particularly those installed in cars, provided “pop out” buttons for selecting a predefined station setting; when one button was pushed in, indicating it was selected, the button of the previous selection would pop back out.

Steal my thunder

Current usage: To claim someone else’s idea as your own, without proper attribution

Derived from: Mustard bowls

Derivation: In 1704, British playwright John Dennis devised a new method for replicating the sound of thunder, using metals balls in a wooden bowl (referred to as a “mustard bowl”), which he used in his play Appius and Virginia at London’s Drury Lane Theater. The play wasn’t a hit, but Dennis’s method for producing thunder was, as it was appropriated by the theater without his consent for use in a production of Macbeth soon afterwards, which Dennis was none too pleased about.

Mind your Ps and Qs

Current usage: To mind your manners or to be on your toes.

Derived from: Printing presses

Derivation: When setting type for letterpress printing using a printing press, type was set backwards and upside down. Since lower case Ps and Qs look awfully similar in many typefaces, it would be easy to mix them up during the process of setting type. Printer’s apprentices would be reminded to be careful to not mix the two up. NOTE: This is one of several accepted explanations for the origin of this term; there is no consensus on which one is ultimately correct.

Carriage return

Current usage: A control character to command an output device for a computer (such as a display or printer) to move a cursor to the first position of the line.

Derived from: Typewriters

Derivation: When someone using a typewriter reached the end of a line, a carriage return was used to move the carriage holding the paper to the right and position the paper so typing would resume at the beginning of the next line. Originally, the carriage return was a lever, but on electric typewriters, as carriages were replaced with mechanism that moved across the paper, the carriage return was invoked with a button labeled “return,” which continues to be used on computers today.

Drop a dime on

Current usage: To inform on or betray someone else, usually to the police for criminal activity.

Derived from: Pay phones

Derivation: Before cell phones became popular, pay phones were ubiquitous; they could be found on just about every street corner and in every public place. Not only were they were easy to find, but they were also a great way to make an anonymous call like, for instance, to inform the police about someone doing something illegal. The saying it spawned to anonymously snitch on someone was also derived from the longtime cost of a payphone call.


Current usage: To indicate people receiving an email addressed primarily to someone else.

Derived from: Carbon paper

Derivation: Before photocopiers, email and personal computers, carbon paper was used to create copies of documents that were written by hand or on a typewriter. Multiple copies of letters could be created at the time the letter was written, and recipients other than the person the letter was addressed to would receive one of these “carbon copies.” Carbon copy recipients were normally indicated at the end of the letter using the notation “CC”.

Sound like a broken record

Current usage: To keep repeating yourself.

Derived from: Vinyl records

Derivation: Back when records were the dominant medium for music, they could easily become scratched. When the record player needle hit a scratch, it would skip or repeat part of the record, over and over.