Do e-readers change the way we read?

New words enter English all the time. One major source of new words and senses is technological innovation. If a device is created that didn’t previously exist, it needs a name, and if the device is popular enough, that name, along with other words to describe the functions of the device, enters widespread usage. So how exactly does technological innovation change the way we talk and think? To put this question in context, let’s explore some new words and senses that have entered English thanks to the invention and ever-growing use of e-readers.

The term “e-reader” debuted as recently as the 1990s. When it first entered English, e-reader referred to a person who reads electronic versions of legacy-print materials. Shortly thereafter, e-reader also took on the sense of the handheld device used by people to read digital files. The term “e-book” predates “e-reader,” and has been used in English since the late 1980s.

Over the last decade, as e-readers such as the Kindle and the Nook have become less expensive and more accessible to the general public, the words to describe reading have started to expand to include digital reading. The term “book” now can refer to a downloadable file in addition to a traditional printed book. Bookmarks also continue to exist in the realm of e-readers. Bookmark as a verb has been around since the 1960s, mainly in the computing context, so its appropriation by e-readers is no surprise.

However, other words have less traction in the digital arena. Pages, for example, do not exist in e-books in the same way that they do in physical books. On e-readers, the size and orientation of text can be manipulated, making the concept of e-book page numbers less firm. While page numbers sometimes appear in certain electronic versions of books, oftentimes users of e-readers opt for viewing the percentage of the book read over page numbers. Goodreads, the popular social networking site where people can track and review books, even defaults to the “percentage read” of a book when the e-book option is chosen. The language used to describe moving through a book has also started to shift. With no physical pages to turn, people might move forward or backward in a book by “tapping” or “swiping” rather than “turning” a page. Similarly, the words “pinch” and “scroll” have attained new senses of their own because of their use to describe navigation on touchscreen devices.

The rise of e-readers has prompted speculation about the ways the mind processes words on a screen compared to words in paper books–the concern that holding a physical book promotes understanding in a way that staring at a screen does not.  A recent study by Sara Margolin suggests that e-readers do not hinder reading comprehension, at least in short passages of text. As research like this gains ground, the use of e-readers will only increase, and with it, new ways of conceiving of and talking about reading will surface in the language, and in turn, enter dictionaries.

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