Word Matters Podcast

A Totally Original History of 'Stereotype'

Word Matters, Episode 47

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What do French printing presses have to do with overused phrases and unfair opinions? We'll look at how the word 'stereotype' got so... stereo-y. Then, we'll answer the age-old question: is there a difference between someone being your 'colleague' and being your 'coworker'?

Download the episode here.


(intro music – “Build Something Beautiful” by Tobias Voigt)

(teaser clips)

Emily Brewster: The meaning of the word is really not very apparent from the elements that make the word up.

Peter Sokolowski: The oldest use of worker was maker or creator, with explicit reference to God.

(intro music)

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: a little word history from the print shop, and the way we refer to the people we work with. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

How is an unfair belief about all people with a particular characteristic like an 18th century printing technology? No, that's not a riddle. It's the story of the word stereotype. Next up, I'll fill in the ink-strewn history. The term stereotype. When I think of, say, a toddler, I think of a toddler as throwing tantrums, not eating what you give them to eat, being demanding and irrational. Those are all stereotypes about toddlers. Individual toddlers may behave differently.

A stereotype is a commonly held mental image, as our definition puts it, that represents an over-simplified opinion, a prejudiced attitude, or an unconsidered judgment about someone or something. The meaning of the word is really not very apparent from the elements that make the word up. Of course, stereo, I think we most often think of sound systems, I do anyway. And type, I think of a typewriter, but a stereotype, when you know the background of the term, it makes a little more sense. It is originally a printer's term.

So if we go into the history of printing, we've got Gutenberg, his original, mid-15th century wooden press, could print about 250 pages per hour. And that was because you can only print one page at a time. Of course, typing at that point was... There was a big kind of a box into which you would set the actual print stamp letters.

Peter Sokolowski: The slugs?

Emily Brewster: Like a whole bunch of little stamps. Slugs. Thank you. I never worked in a printer's shop. So you would have to line up each word in these little metal pieces and put them all very carefully in the punctuation and everything. And then you'll put ink and then you would lay paper over it and press it on. And then voila, you have this sheet of paper that then has this print on it, but it was a very, very slow process.

So, beginning in the late 18th century, two and a half centuries after Gutenberg's press, we have the invention of a stereotype, and a stereotype was something you would use to make multiple pages at a time. So you begin with the same kind of plate, and then you would put a mat or a piece of paper mache over it. And that form actually is called a matrix. And the matrix could then be used to cast a metal plate. And the metal plate is what was called the stereotype. And then you could run that on a whole bunch of different presses and you could make many, many, many copies of the same page. And that is where we get the word stereotype.

Ammon Shea: When did it shift from technical jargon to opprobrious use?

Emily Brewster: The extended use happened pretty soon after. So it was late 18th century, I believe, that the stereotype was actually made. And then by middle of 19th century, you see some extended use.

Ammon Shea: That is pretty quick.

Emily Brewster: Yeah, it is pretty quick. And I think it clearly had an impact on the culture, this expansion of printed material. If you think about how dramatically this changed the access that individuals had to printed copy.

Ammon Shea: Are there other print jargonistic words that have made a similar leap?

Emily Brewster: Well, cliche. Cliche is the French term for stereotype. Exactly.

Ammon Shea: That seems kind of like an example of itself, doesn't it?

Emily Brewster: It actually means "stereotype." I know, yes.

Neil Serven: I think of the term boilerplate.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, yeah.

Neil Serven: Which also gets used for that text that you just throw at the end of an article, that's kind of automatic. The plates had the print already on them when they were sent to the newspapers so they could just be thrown at the end of an article or something. And so you're talking about boilerplate copy, it's sort of reductive in that same way. It's like something you've already seen before and you know why it's there.

Emily Brewster: That's right. It doesn't have to be remade every time.

Neil Serven: Right.

Emily Brewster: It's just the standard lines. Now, the funny thing to me about the word stereotype is how much we have lost the etymology. So I just explained the story of what a stereotype is, but I had somehow thought that prefix, that stere-, would have to do with sound maybe, or that it had to do with left and right, or like something three-dimensional. But that stere- prefix actually means "solid."

Peter Sokolowski: Solid as in three dimensional. Right?

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Peter Sokolowski: And so, because you think of those old LPs and it would say, three-dimensional sound, and I have exactly the same response, Emily, because I always thought stereo meant left and right. You had this division of the recorded sound, but in fact it was just an image. It was a way of expressing a more realistic depiction of audio by this three dimensional sound. This idea of separation.

Emily Brewster: It's metaphor.

Peter Sokolowski: It's the three dimensionality.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Ammon Shea: Hasn't it come to mean two channels?

Peter Sokolowski: I think it has for me, but think of stereoscope. You could also argue suffers from the same kind of confusion. We might think we have two eyes and we're using the two eyes to have a perceived three dimensionality in the image.

Emily Brewster: We should say what a stereoscope is, right? It's an optical instrument with two eye pieces for helping the observer to combine the images of two pictures, taken from points of view a little way apart, thus to get the effect of solidity or depth. It's one of those things you can look through and actually the two images are slightly different so that... They're taken in a very particular way so that it looks like it's 3D. It looks solid.

Peter Sokolowski: I always thought it meant two.

Ammon Shea: I have to say, I think we're running the risk of falling down the etymological fallacy wormhole here, because I certainly don't disagree with the etymology and Emily's history. I do think that if you were to ask most people, what does stereo mean? As opposed to, say, mono, they would say, "Well, mono means a single channel. You hear the same thing from the speakers. And stereo means two channels. You hear two different versions of it." And I think that it's taken on an extended meaning in common usage.

Emily Brewster: Yes, that's right. We know this about words. Words are not locked into the meaning of their etonyms in no sense. So that metaphorical idea of a sound being solid has now moved on and is doing its own thing.

Ammon Shea: It's moved on decades ago.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Peter Sokolowski: It's interesting, because stereotype, meaning this three dimensional kind of reproduction of the cast slugs of letters is one thing, but stereophonic...

Ammon Shea: Yeah, we define stereophonic as "of, relating to, or constituting sound reproduction involving the use of separated microphones and two transmission channels to achieve the sound separation of a live hearing."

Peter Sokolowski: Interesting. But you could still assume that it had to do with separation. That is to say two sources, two microphones, therefore two speakers. There's nothing binary about it.

Ammon Shea: No, no. Sure.

Peter Sokolowski: It's about this three-dimensionality and that is etymological fallacy to an extent because we're talking about the etymological meaning of the Greek word that is at the root of stereo.

Neil Serven: Especially when the sense of stereotype that we're talking about is really about one-dimensionality. It's about reducing someone's character to the things that we are generally known about them, to stereotype that lexicographers are nerdy and wonky and introverted people, and also quite true for a lot of us anyway, it's just kind of fascinating that, we had that term that referred to something much more complex than used almost as kind of this sociological term alluding to this reductiveness of character.

You think of words like cliché also refers to language that is just too common, repeated too often that we're tired of hearing it. Hackneyed, which actually referred to carriages pulled by draft horses, then got to be used, you know hackneyed expressions, and then you refer to a hack as a cheap writer of no quality or no originality. And so it was just kind of interesting that we've come up with these different terms for this point of narrowness and this point of reductionism.

Ammon Shea: Emily, do you think it's coincidental that the two primary terms that we've borrowed from printers jargon both are nearly synonymous?

Emily Brewster: I wonder. I don't know. I think that it says something about the impact that print had on our culture, on our language. The impact that the printed word has had on the expansion of the language is enormous.

Peter Sokolowski: And the term cliché, which is obviously a French borrowing, and we even spell it with that acute accent, rising to the right, in English. One of the few words in which we've kind of retained those diacritics from a foreign language. In French today, it also means snapshot or snapped, in British English. Sort of informal photograph. And so it's got this other use.

There's something else about stereotype as a technology and dictionaries that I'd like to mention. It's just a passing thought, but one of the reasons that dictionaries were so difficult to publish in the early modern era into the 1700s, even into the 1800s, was that dictionaries were usually really fat books. There were lots of pages. And if you had to take all the slugs and lock them into a printing plate and then print a number of copies of them, a few hundred or a few thousand, then you'd have to undo that plate, take all those slugs out and reform for the next page. And while doing that, you had to store the thousand pages you just printed, carefully in a dry place, and for a long time, while you were printing out all the other pages.

And the point I want to make is that this is why dictionaries were actually terrible business. You would think that in the early 1700s, when there weren't that many dictionaries, the ones that did exist were pretty small. There weren't comprehensive books. And then after Samuel Johnson, they got to be bigger books, but even Johnson famously didn't become wealthy. He didn't make a lot of money because it was such a huge risk. What if there was a fire? What if there was a flood? What if there was a leaky roof? You would have lost all of the previous pages, which might represent months of work. So it really was the advent of the stereotype, which meant you could make that printing plate and then have a permanent fixed version of it, and make all those metal printing plates, and then print the paper at the point at which you had the existing plates, rather than printing the papers one at a time, if you understand what I'm saying. And it turned the dictionaries and Bibles into real good business.

Ammon Shea: That's the point at which dictionary makers all became fabulously wealthy and the rock stars of the late 19th century.

Peter Sokolowski: I think it's an interesting point because it sometimes occurs to me that why weren't dictionaries more successful or even more valued as objects in the 1700s when they were quite rare? And this is one of the reasons. It's just that for production purposes, they were really hard to make.

Emily Brewster: I think it's interesting that we took this miracle of technology that made it possible to put the written word into homes everywhere and to give them to all kinds of people, and we have denigrated it and we made an uncomplimentary, reductive term that we apply to...

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back after the break to examine who is a colleague and who is a coworker, or are they the same? Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. join me every day for the word of the day. A brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at merriam-webster.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM Podcast Hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: If you enjoy Word Matters, check out the Science Diction podcast from the producers of Public Radio's Science Friday. It's a podcast about words and the science behind them. On a recent episode, Language Evolves, Peter and I talk with Johanna Mayer about words born out of mistakes. That's Science Diction, available wherever you get your podcasts. Coming next, we have a question that surely plagues workers everywhere. When is someone your coworker and when are they a colleague? Is there even a difference? Here's Peter Sokolowski.

Peter Sokolowski: English has many synonyms and near synonyms, and words that can overlap but occur with different usage in different frequency. So I would ask the three of you, how would you distinguish between the words colleague and coworker?

Ammon Shea: I would say a co-worker is somebody who gets paid and has to listen to you speak, whereas a colleague is not paid enough to have to listen to me go on and on about stuff, which is to say most of the world.

Emily Brewster: That's an excellent definition. Well, a coworker, more seriously, is someone you work with, typically at the same place, even, and a colleague is also someone you work with, but not necessarily at the same company, even. It's someone you do the same kind of work as, or someone you work with. I think sometimes they are direct synonyms, a coworker, a colleague. You are all my colleagues and my coworkers. But a colleague, I can have colleagues who work for other dictionary makers, for example.

Peter Sokolowski: And you use the term with. To work with. And that with is part of the word, right? 'Cause the co of coworker comes from the Latin word com, meaning "with" or "together," and that word alters according to what it's joined to. So sometimes it's spelled with a C-O-N, or C-O-L, as it is with colleague, or just C-O as it is with coworker. So the coworker means "worker with," so, "one that works with."

Neil Serven: I'm in the camp that I think coworker makes me think of occupying the same space, like a coworking space, an office, or even a project together. Your work then gets interacted with someone else's and you're doing something together, even if it's this large project of not necessarily a single thing, but just the overall goal of the company is your coworker. Whereas colleague, I tend to think of just people you might encounter in your industry. A coworker falls under the larger category of colleague, but not every colleague is a coworker.

Ammon Shea: A coworker is somebody who, of necessity, can steal your lunch. A colleague can steal your ideas and possibly your lunch.

Neil Serven: Well, stealing a lunch would not be very collegial, you know.

Peter Sokolowski: There we go.

Neil Serven: It wouldn't feel like a thing... Kind of the weight that colleague has. I think.

Peter Sokolowski: So collegial has, of course, similar roots. It gets to the history of these terms, which is legere, the Latin verb meaning "to choose." So colleague means one chosen with, and it can also mean to send as a deputy. So words like delegation, which is a chosen or deputized group, or legacy, which originally meant the office or position of a leget or a deputy. And now it means something sent or bequeathed. So legacy and delegate and collegiate, college. College is a group of people chosen together. And so that's where that word comes from. It reminds me of the word companion. It's built the same way. Companion, C-O-M, meaning "with," and the pan of companion means "bread." So companion is one with whom you share bread. But the thing is, these words are used differently. And through history, their use is slightly different because if you look back into the 1500s, of course, most of printed English is either bureaucratic or ecclesiastical, or poetry or plays. It tends to limit the evidence that we have. And we see lots of evidence of ecclesiastical use for both of these terms. Colleague is the older term and it was used the way we use it today, but initially used to refer to people who have the same jobs or positions relative to those who chose them, beginning with saints, apostles, and bishops. And so they were referred to as colleagues. And I think we can see that these are people who were not, for example, laborers, they're people of distinction or authority. And then when we get to the word coworker, it was more rare in the 1500s than colleague was, but it was used in a very particular way. Some typical examples from the 1600s are "Christ hath no coworker with him." And another one, "and then we begin to be coworkers with the grace of God." And the word grace and coworker seem to occur near each other quite frequently during this period. And it shows that this biblical sense of the works of God is really what we're talking about. It's not work as in labor, but work as in a miraculous expression of God's grace. And that's a very different take on this word. The oldest use of worker was "maker" or "creator" with explicit reference to God. And in the King James Bible, worker is most frequently used in the phrase workers of iniquity, meaning "sinners." So again, it's not a labor or not doing a job, but doing something that has to do with motivation-

Ammon Shea: It's still creating. Creating sin and iniquity.

Peter Sokolowski: And grace. Right? Yeah. But you're not making something you can hold in your hand.

Ammon Shea: Right, sure.

Neil Serven: It surprises me that coworker has this long of a history because it feels just like a very modern word. It feels like a word I associate with the post-war offices and cubicles and things like that. And even the word itself... Worker, I imagine as a Germanic origin and co, I think you said relates to com and has those kind of Latinate origins. So you kind of lump them together and they sort of look like they don't even belong together.

Peter Sokolowski: Right. It's a Latin prefix with an Old English word.

Neil Serven: It also just sounds like a business jargon word, like a word you might want to use so that people didn't specify their ranks to each other. So we're just coworkers. We might not have a higher title, might not have any kind of title that gives an idea of term of service. And so it's sort of this neutralizing word. It's like, "Oh, we're all coworkers here." I feel like it was chosen for certain contexts. And I think that might be why I'm thinking of offices and things like that.

Peter Sokolowski: And the word comrade, right? Essentially a worker.

Neil Serven: Right.

Emily Brewster: I think coworker has an egalitarian feel to it, for sure. Right? It's not about status and position. It is about people who simply work together.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. Coworker tends to be used for people who share a workspace or duties. And it's true that colleague is used more often in professional context, sometimes referring to people who work in the same field, but not for the same institution, for example. But one other way to check these words and their usage is to look at the company they keep and to look up which words are found in close proximity to colleague and to coworker. So for colleague, we have words like long time, fellow, esteemed, trusted, distinguished, experienced, and respected. And then for coworker, we have words that are as plain, to a certain extent, as the word coworker is; former, bossy, annoying, difficult, friendly, and named. And it's interesting that those are the words that are more closely associated with coworker. So you do see the company they keep is quite different.

Neil Serven: Yeah. Well colleague literally has collegiality behind it, right? It's kind of as warped of relation. You think about, and are literally sharing in common with somebody else, even if they don't necessarily work with you, people in the dictionary business, we have colleagues in the dictionary business. If we were to meet them outside the office, we would have a subject to talk about right away. Whereas, your coworkers are just kind of like... You don't necessarily have anything in common with them outside of work.

Peter Sokolowski: They might steal your lunch.

Neil Serven: And they might steal your lunch.

Emily Brewster: Your colleagues might steal your lunch too. There's also maybe a kind of snobbery, even. Colleague, collegial.

Peter Sokolowski: Well that term, for example, cherished colleague, which I don't think we would associate the term cherished with coworker. Not that you couldn't say it. It's just, the words are almost a collocation. You know, they appear frequently next to each other. And it's true, as Neil made the point, that Latin-derived words tend to be used in a more technical or abstract or official way than the Old English derived words that are maybe synonymous in many cases. But the division of these two words kind of follows that pattern. And that's true for any number of these words. But it is true that in this case worker originally meant a performer of miracles. And there aren't many ideas that are more abstract than religious miracles.

Emily Brewster: That is a really remarkable origin for it. And then also them being coworkers with God, right? God, as being the ultimate worker of miracles, and coworkers, it actually has these very elevated beginning.

Peter Sokolowski: It does. It's a different context entirely.

Neil Serven: And work on its own seems to have like this deeper history behind it. But it's also nonspecific.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Neil Serven: I remember growing up, my father, literally having a lunch pail and getting in the car and going to work. This was always this kind of abstract place to me. I eventually learned what kind of job he did, but I didn't really get to see it a lot. So it was always just kind of this other place that was not home.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure. We go to work.

Neil Serven: We'd go to work. And then it wasn't until I started having to work myself that I understood kind of a weight behind the word that I didn't really think of it when I was younger. And so when we think of coworker and forming this relationship around that word work, which is not just an activity, but a place, it sort of doesn't really get into that specificity that a word like colleague seems to reward.

Peter Sokolowski: Right. And that elemental part that's that Old English part, like the word home, all of these terms that have to do with family, these really basic elemental words, they tend to be from Old English. Maybe that original use of coworker was abstract. But I think that English works in mysterious ways.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts, or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. And for the word of the day, and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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