Language Notes

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by Lionel E. Deimel

I watched a commercial on television yesterday for a movie that is now available “on DVD and video.” This phrase sounded quite peculiar, and it was interesting to figure out why.

The word “video” was coined in the Television set’30s to mean television or of television. (Surprisingly, “television” is about 30 years older than “video.”) The word was derived from the Latin verb for to see (videre) and was intended to be an analogue of “audio.” In the Age of Television, of course, “video” was often used to refer to the visual component of television, and “audio” was used to refer to the medium’s acoustical component. Over the years, “video” has, by extension, been applied to television-like devices or processes (“video games,” “streaming video”) and to the visual component of such things (“video card,” “video input”).

When methods were developed to store television images on magnetic tape, the words “videotape” and the more specific “videocassette” were coined. When videotape escaped from the studio and became a consumer product, it was inevitable that “videocassette” would be truncated to something more tractable. As “transistor radio” and “microwave oven” were shortened, respectively, to “transistor” and “microwave,” “videocassette” became simply “video,” and people began renting such things from the “video store.” (Personally, I’ve never made peace with either “transistor” or “microwave,” but the process cannot be denied.) People spoke about “renting a video,” not “renting a videocassette.” Thus, “video” acquired new meanings associated with storage technology.

The term “video store” was rather fortuitous. There was no need to change what we call such establishments when video games were added to the inventory. The latest things we rent at the video store are DVDs. “DVD” originally was an acronym for “digital video disc,” but hardly anyone knows that, and, officially, “DVD” doesn’t actually stand for anything. If someone goes off to rent a “video” and returns home with a DVD, this seems natural not because of the “V” in “DVD,” but because “video” has subtly shifted to refer to any sort of recorded television-like content. This is what a video store rents (and, increasingly, sells). Again, there was no need to rename the store.

Now, about that phrase “on DVD and video.” The reason that this phrase sounds odd is that it is trying to communicate DVD and videocassette that the content (i.e., the movie) is available in two different formats, DVD and videocassette. Because of the way we have generalized the meaning of “video,” however, its referring to a particular storage medium is, at best, secondary. In fact, that usage, except in very specific contexts, has almost become untenable. Whereas the phrase “on DVD and videocassette” would have been clear to everyone, “on DVD and video” seems redundant, since DVD is one variety of “video.” Advertising people may prefer saving two syllables to achieving linguistic precision, of course, so that the phrase “on DVD and video” may persist for a while. I take some comfort in knowing that it will be extinguished eventually, if only because the prerecorded videocassette is destined to go the way of of the eight-track tape.

— LED, 5/9/2003

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