Tuesday, August 13, 2013
  The toggling of toggle




Professor Polistra has noted a peculiar semantic shift in an old word.

Let's look at the sequence in more detail:


(1) A toggle was originally a nautical gadget to make a rope-end into a kind of latch.

(2) The name was later applied to a nut with flaps or wings, again serving as a latch. Though the nut bears the latch, the entire fixture is usually called a toggle bolt, perhaps because you insert the bolt-and-nut assembly through a hole into an area where the nut would be unwrenchable.

(3) Toggle switches are common on appliances and electronic gadgets. A toggle switch isn't any more latch-y than other switches. Perhaps the name came more from appearance than function.

(4) Now the odd part. In programming or in a computer interface, toggle has come to mean something like Snap On / Snap Off. You push the same button repeatedly and get opposite actions, or hit the same point in the loop repeatedly and get opposite actions.

This doesn't make a lick of sense. Prof P looks at the history of household switches and finds better candidates for the metaphor.



(1) and (2) The first common switch for household circuits was the Rotary Snap Switch. Snap switches were common from 1890 to 1920, and you can still occasionally find one in an obscure location like basement or attic stairs. The snap switch always rotated clockwise, and each turn alternated the light. You didn't need to see which way it was presently set. Just turn until it snaps and you'll get what you want. (This puts the rotary switch closest to our instincts. What is our purpose in using a switch? It's always to make it the other way. On-ness and Off-ness are secondary; Other-Way-Ness is what we want.)

(3) Around 1920 the pushbutton switch took over and remained universal until 1940. Though you now had to pick one button, the picking was easy and could be done in the dark solely by finger-feel. You find the protruding button and push it to get what you want. If the light is off, the On button is protruding; if the light is on, the Off button is protruding.

(4) This metal toggle was available for household use in 1920 but didn't sell for some reason.

(5) Finally the plastic flat-handle toggle took over in 1940 and is still the default. It has no advantages. You can't just turn or push the first protrusion you find; you have to determine which way it's currently facing, and move it the other way.

See the puzzle now? The idea of Snap On / Snap Off is OPPOSITE to the way a toggle switch works. A toggle switch is the least appropriate source for the metaphor.

Sidenote 1: Separate from the ergonomic question, the actual snap and push-button switches were elegant devices made of fine materials, and they were built to be repairable. You could take them apart and clean the contacts or replace a weak spring. Post-1940 toggle switches could be repairable in theory ... there's nothing about the basic mechanism that would forbid it ... but I've never seen one that can be opened.

Sidenote 2, later: Way with Words radio program had a discussion of verbs referring to lamp controls. "Turn off" and "turn on" are still the most common verbs. Shamefully, I didn't even think about language!!!! The snap switch is the obvious source of both idioms. It was the first household switch, and the only switch for 30 years, which is plenty of time to establish a phrase. Other idioms are Cut off/on and Shut off. Shut probably comes from analogy with gas valves, which controlled lamps before electricity. Cut might come from the idea of figuratively cutting the circuit, but I'm not convinced. Doesn't feel right. Common usage is usually opposite to real circuitry: we talk about "opening a circuit" when we mean "activating the device", which is strictly "closing the circuit."

Sidenote 3, even later: Nope, that wasn't the origin. I ran into the verb turn on, referring to one of the very earliest selector switches, in an 1852 manual for operating telegraph equipment. The whole concept of a switch was brand new, only familiar to an elite group of experimenters and telegraphers. In other words, turning on a switch was born at the same time as the switch itself!

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Polistra was named after the original townsite of Manhattan (the one in Kansas). When I was growing up in Manhattan, I spent a lot of time exploring by foot, bike, and car. I discovered the ruins of an old mill along Wildcat Creek, and decided (inaccurately) that it was the remains of the original site of Polistra. Accurate or not, I've always liked the name, with its echoes of Poland (an under-appreciated friend of freedom) and stars. ==== The title icon is explained here. ==== Switchover: This 2007 entry marks a sharp change in worldview from neocon to pure populist. ===== The long illustrated story of Polistra's Dream is a time-travel fable, attempting to answer the dangerous revision of New Deal history propagated by Amity Shlaes. The Dream has 8 episodes, linked in a chain from the first. This entry explains the Shlaes connection.

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