Wearable or Personal Computer: Which Came First?

wearable, drawing

The popularity of the Apple Watch has given the noun wearable some additional prominence. This leads to the question of which term came first: wearable or personal computer? As with so many such questions, there is no simple answer.

Wearable has been used as a noun since the end of the 17th century (in a book from 1695, titled An Abstract of the Consultation and Debates between the French King and His Council we find the line “their eatables and wearables will be dearer”). Of course, this book was not referring to a wearable computer, which is the sense in which the word is most often used today. For most of its lifetime wearables has been used to refer to “things which may be worn on the body,” and generally meant clothing or jewelry.

The phrase wearable computer began to see currency in the 1970s, when devices small enough to be attached to the body or clothing began to be practical, but it was not shortened to the single word wearable until the late 1990s. Today the term wearable can apply to a wide array of devices, including smartwatches, fitness trackers, augmented reality glasses, and virtual reality headsets.

Personal computer has a more identifiable timeline, since it has not had such a variety of meanings; it began to be used in 1954, and referred to a computer that was intended for the use of a single person. The word computer, simply meaning “one who computes,” has been in use for over 400 years; in the mid- to late 1800s, computer began to be used to describe a device for calculation; it is possible that one could have had a personal computer before the 1950s, perhaps a person to do one’s taxes, but there appears to be no linguistic record of such a person.

The fact that all of the evidence for wearables (meaning wearable computers) is recent does not mean that wearable devices that served a utility did not exist at an earlier point. One may make the case that the small abacuses that have been worn around a user’s neck or as a ring have been wearable computers; some of these date back hundreds of years. And Edward Thorp, a mathematics professor, is known for having created a wearable computer more than 50 years ago for the noble goal of gaining an advantage when gambling at roulette.

However, none of these appear to have been referred to as wearables, or as wearable computers at the time they were in use. It remains to be seen whether the recent noun form of wearable will have the same success in our language that has been enjoyed by the personal computer, more popularly known as the PC. The only thing that is certain is that predicting the future success of any specific word, much as the success of any specific product, is a fool’s errand.

Ammon Shea is the author of Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation and Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages. He lives in New York City with his wife (a former lexicographer), son (a potential future lexicographer), and two non-lexical dogs.

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