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Opening up our hearts – and our Rolodexes

The Monitor's language columnist ponders how some brand names linger on as figures of speech, even as new technologies succeed them.

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On the drive back into the city after a networking meeting, my friend and I critiqued the session. A useful evening, overall, we concurred. But she took issue with the speaker's reference to a Rolodex.

It's very helpful, he had said, when a colleague or client can give you a referral, or make an introduction, to someone who could use your services. But best of all is when a trusted source will sit down and "open their Rolodex for you."

Great idea, but does anybody use a Rolodex anymore? my friend mused. "The technology has moved on." Indeed, some people have no business cards at all. When they meet someone new, they just send that person an e-mail with their contact details, and voilà, that's it.

Still, I understood why the speaker expressed himself the way he did. Why do terms like that linger on as figures of speech?

In this case, no single new technology or device has come in to fulfill what the wonks call the contact management function the way "iPod" has taken over for "Walkman." (I know, by the way, that I'm throwing around some trademarked brand names. They're often best avoided, but sometimes provide a bit of concrete detail that makes them useful. This is one of those cases.)

Another reason "Rolodex" lives on is that many devices do so many things that they can't serve as an indicator of how well connected someone is. "His smart phone is really smart" just doesn't say the same thing as "He has a great Rolodex."

But there's more to it than that.

The ancient Sumerians kept track of their contacts on little clay tablets strung together on strips of camel hide. The tablets were durable, but hard to update when someone moved or had a new phone number. No, I just made that up.

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