Luddite

The word Luddite presents an interesting case of a word. It’s a word that was used for over a century, albeit rather rarely, to refer to a specific historical series of events. Then, in the late 1950s use of the word’s exploded, but with a subtle shift in its original meaning. 

The word has its roots in the early days of the industrial revolution, as mechanization began to arise in the English textile industry at the turn of the nineteenth century. Prior to the late eighteenth century textile workers were highly skilled craftsmen who commanded high wages and respectable social status. Being a textile worker was a good living. But the owners of textile mills, like management everywhere, continually sought to reduce the wages of their workers, but until the advent of mechanization were rather unsuccessful. Beginning the late eighteenth century, however, machines had reached a level of sophistication where they could do the jobs of those highly skilled and highly paid workers. Out of this situation emerged the Luddites.

The Luddites take their name from Ned Lud, or Ludd, a (probably) fictional character, who around 1779 allegedly destroyed several textile machines in Leicestershire. There is no strong evidence to demonstrate that such a disturbance actually happened, much less that Ned Lud was a real person. The movement bearing his name would appear several decades later.

From 1811–13 there were a series of riots at English textile mills in which the workers destroyed the machines that were taking their jobs. The loosely organized, underground movement professed that “Captain Ludd” or “King Lud” was their ringleader. It was a useful bit of propaganda, but it’s unlikely that there was a single leader of the movement, and far less that the leader was the aforementioned Ned Lud. These original Luddites were not opposed to technology per se; they were protesting the loss of their jobs. At issue was economic disruption, not distrust or dislike of machines.

The word Luddite first appears in 1811 referring to these industrial disruptions, and it continued to be used to refer to this historical incident through to the latter half of the twentieth century. When people spoke of Luddites, they were referring specifically to the people who destroyed the textile machines in the early nineteenth century. The word was also not especially common, which is not surprising given its limited meaning in reference to the specific historical events.

But starting in the late 1950s, Luddite started to be used to refer to those who objected to new technologies generally, and not a reference to the labor disruptions of the previous century. The OED records this from the Annual Register published in 1957:

A Labour spokesman [...] assured the Minister that organized workers were by no means wedded to a “Luddite” philosophy.

This 1957 citation is still in the context of a labor disruption, but soon the word would be used more generally to refer to a distrust or fear of technology outside the context of labor. The OED has this from London Times of 16 April 1967:

Systems men are just as susceptible to Luddism as anyone else.

And with this new meaning came a large increase in the word’s use. Google Ngram shows a 300-fold increase in the word’s use from 1960 to 2000. A sudden rise from a steady, low level of use over the previous century and a half.*

The change can be attributed to two factors: the new, computer revolution and the shift to a more general meaning, which made the term more useful—Luddite no longer just referred to a specific and rather obscure event of a century past, but referred to contemporary attitudes toward the increasing intrusion of new technologies into people’s lives.

For more on the original Luddites, NPR’s Planet Money has an episode that nicely encapsulates the history of the movement.


* = Google Ngram results should be taken with a grain of salt. The data set is rife with metadata and OCR errors. But when Google Ngram shows a marked shift like this one, the trend is probably valid, even if the exact numbers may be somewhat off.

Sources:

Google Books Ngram Viewer. s.v. “luddite.” 12 May 2015.

Oxford English Dictionary Online. Second Edition, 1989. s.v. “Luddism, n.” “Luddite, n. (and adj.).”

When Luddites Attack.” Planet Money. http://www.npr.org. 6 May 2015.

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