Are you a Luddite?
Published: 20th Apr 2012 01:22:42
They burned down mills in the name of a mythical character called Ludd. So 200 years after their most famous battle, why are we still peppering conversations with the word "Luddite"?
It's a popular retort to someone struggling to operate their new smartphone or refusing to buy the latest gizmo: "You're such a Luddite."
There is another word for it - technophobe - but it doesn't convey the same sense of irrational hostility to the modern world. So where did "Luddite" come from?
In the midst of the British industrial revolution, skilled textile workers feared for their jobs. An uprising began in 1811 when Nottinghamshire weavers attacked the new automated looms that were replacing them.
The workers took inspiration from a fabled General Ludd or King Ludd living in Sherwood Forest. His fanciful name may have come from a young Leicestershire weaver called Ned Lud, who in the late 18th Century was rumoured to have smashed two stocking frames.
The machine breaking spread to West Yorkshire wool workers and Lancashire cotton mills, in what the historian Eric Hobsbawm called "collective bargaining by riot". Machinery was wrecked, mills were burned down and the Luddites fought pitched battles with the British Army.
The response of the state was brutal. Machine breaking became a capital offence. At trials in York, 17 Luddites were hanged and another 25 transported to Australia, while in Lancaster eight were hanged and 38 sentenced to transportation.
One of the most serious incidents happened two hundred years ago this month. About 150 Luddites armed with hammers and axes attacked Cartwright's mill in Rawfolds, near Huddersfield. The authorities shot two of them dead and the attack was eventually repelled.
For Katrina Navickas, author of Loyalism & Radicalism in Lancashire 1798-1815, they were working class heroes. Trade unions had been banned in 1800 and here was another way for workers to defend their livelihoods.
We use [the term Luddite] for people who are hostile to technology, who don't want to get a mobile phone. But what concerned the Luddites about technology was that it was going to cut their wages”
There's no doubt that the Luddites have been romanticised, says Dr Emma Griffin, author of A Short History of the British Industrial Revolution. They are thought of as the first workers to destroy their machinery, yet this had been going on for years. What marks the Luddites out was that they were better organised than their predecessors, she says.
But both historians agree that today's use of "Luddite" is wrong. To use the term for someone who ignores Twitter or refuses to move from analogue to digital TV is a complete misrepresentation, says Griffin.
"We use it for people who are hostile to technology, who don't want to get a mobile phone," she says. "But what concerned the Luddites about technology was that it was going to cut their wages."
An accurate modern example, according to Griffin, is the 1986 battle of Wapping when print unions picketed Rupert Murdoch's new hi-tech newspaper offices in protest at the computerisation they feared would make them obsolete.
So how did the word evolve so much?
The first recorded usage of Luddite in the Oxford English Dictionary is for 1811. But its catch-all anti-tech meaning appears to be a relatively recent phenomenon. According to the OED, it wasn't until 1970 that the term was used - by the New Scientist - to describe technology refuseniks.
But soon this meaning was everywhere. In 1984 the novelist Thomas Pynchon wrote an essay asking "Is it OK to be a Luddite?" for the New York Times Book Review.
The debate has never been quite resolved, for the desirability of being a Luddite is a matter of personal taste. A common boast in the 1980s was that one couldn't programme the video. But for others "Luddite" is a useful putdown for Neanderthal technophobes that can be laced with different quantities of humour or contempt.
LUDDITE, n. (and adj.)
1. A member of an organised band of English mechanics and their friends, who (1811-16) set themselves to destroy manufacturing machinery in the Midlands and north of England.
2. One who opposes the introduction of new technology, especially into a place of work.
The term was first used to describe technology refuseniks in The New Scientist in 1970:
New Scientist 10 Sept. 549: "They [sc. errors] can be prevented by improved systems and organization. But first it is necessary to overcome the professional and official Luddites."
Source: Oxford English Dictionary
"Will mainframes attract the same hostile attention as knitting frames once did?", Pynchon wondered in his essay. "I really doubt it. Writers of all descriptions are stampeding to buy word processors."
And yet a neo-Luddite movement sprang up. The most extreme expression of this philosophy was the bombing campaign of Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, who was sentenced to life imprisonment. His manifesto, which was eventually published by the New York Times, said that the "Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race".
Today with digital technology enlivening or intruding on - depending on your view - day-to-day experiences, the term is more popular than ever. People nostalgic for a time before mobile ringtones had colonised train carriages may class themselves as Luddites.
But whereas once it was cool for kids not to understand science, the tide now appears to be with the nerds and geeks. Luddite may sometimes be a fond term but its adherents are on the losing side.
The sheer variety of situations in which "Luddite" can be used would astonish the attackers of Cartwright's Mill were they to resurface today.
In recent years, the term has been used for opponents of planning reform, ID cards, Tesco and goalline technology. Prince Charles is a target, as is the novelist Jonathan Franzen - after an attack on e-books and Twitter - and Oasis were once described by fellow band Bloc Party as "repetitive Luddites".
Historians may bridle at such an inexact use of the word but it's too late, says Mark Forsyth, author of The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language.
"There's absolutely no point historians getting indignant about language. It's never going to stop changing - they're trying to hold back the tide like the Luddites."
And "Luddite" is not unique. Many historical terms are bandied about casually, losing their precise meaning. "People have a "cavalier" attitude," Forsyth points out. "There are 'puritans' all over the place. And 'bolshie' is a bit of a classic."
None of this means that contemporary Britain is awash with supporters of Charles I, hardline Calvinists or Bolshevik revolutionaries. But these colourful terms add to the richness of the English language, he says.
For lexicographer Susie Dent, the evolution or "transferred" meaning of "Luddite" reminds her of how "philistine" has changed. "The figurative sense to mean an uneducated or unenlightened person is from 1825. Before then, the first transferred sense was an often humorous reference to a group regarded as one's enemies."
These new allusions are quite common, she says. "But what always strikes me is their endurance, centuries beyond their original application."
Navickas makes a point of correcting people, albeit in a lighthearted way, when she overhears them misusing "Luddite". And yet she is thankful for the frequent sloppy usage, as it keeps these textile workers' memory alive.
The rural equivalent of the Luddites were farm workers who took part in the Swing Riots of the early 1830s. Ricks were burnt, threshing machines destroyed and tithe barns attacked. But no-one remembers this now for they never developed a recognisable brand, she says.
So however grating it is to hear an iPhone refusenik invoking the weavers of Nottinghamshire, Navickas is glad that "Luddite" remains a popular part of everyday speech.
The irony is that as the speed of technological change accelerates, the term "Luddite" has never been more necessary.
At 19:55:52 in SportBotswana's Nijel Amos produced a stunning run down the final straight to beat Kenyan David Rudisha to 800m Commonwealth gold.
At 19:51:37 in EnglandA former PC who was inside the police control box at Hillsborough has denied witnessing the start of a "cover-up".
At 19:49:45 in WalesFive people arrested by North Wales Police in connection with a fraud investigation work for a Gwynedd bus company, BBC Wales understands.
At 19:45:31 in Northern IrelandAn investigation has been launched into a "serious data breach" after medical files were found by children at a former health centre owned by SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell.
At 19:45:07 in SportJersey's Zane Duquemin has finished eighth in the discus at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
At 19:36:49 in EnglandRinging 999 for a lift after missing a bus or train has been one of the most common "inappropriate" calls received by police in Norfolk.
At 19:33:40 in SportA Thai consortium is to invest in Reading after chairman Sir John Madejski confirmed the deal.
At 19:32:06 in SportFormula 1 is heading into its summer break, so it is a good time to reflect on the season so far.
At 19:29:04 in SportEngland swimmer Siobhan-Marie O'Connor has described her time at the Commonwealth Games as "crazy" after winning six medals in Glasgow.
At 19:19:08 in SportNorthern Ireland 800m runner Katie Kirk improved her personal best for the second time in two days as she finished sixth in her semi-final in Glasgow.
Harvard CitationBBC News, 2012. Are you a Luddite? [Online] (Updated 20th Apr 2012)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/1423508/Are-you-a-Luddite [Accessed 31st Jul 2014]
News In Other Categories
The head of the World Health Organization and leaders of West African nations affected by the Ebola outbreak are to announce a joint $100m (£59m; 75m euro) response plan.
The owner and head foreman of a farm in Greece have been cleared over the shooting of a group of migrant workers in which 30 were wounded.
When politicians talk about tax it makes headlines - even if they are not really saying anything. Let's play a little guessing game....
The Metropolitan Opera in New York says it hopes last minute negotiations with unions will avoid a staff lockout.
Plans have been unveiled for five more local TV stations in Scotland.
With the doors to its brand new £1million training centre officially open, one of the UK's leading apprentice training providers, Bristol based S&B Automotive Academy, is showcasing its world-class facilities by launching a series of foreign student exchanges for the first time in its 41-year history. To get a flavour of what life is like as an apprentice in the UK, the Academy hosted 16 apprentice engineers and bus drivers from the G9 Automotive College in Hamburg, Germany, as part of a Europe-wide vocational training initiative called the ‘Leonardo Programme’ with support from the European Social Fund. In a reciprocal arrangement, S&B will be sending nine apprentices to Germany during February 2012 so that they can get an appreciation of life in the automotive industry on the Continent. A further three German exchange groups are being planned for next year. Designed to assist the development of vocational skills and training across Europe, including work placements for trainees, the Leonardo Programme has a budget of €1.75bn, which is helping to encourage UK organisations to work with their counterparts abroad. In what is expected to be another challenging year for employers in the UK automotive sector, S&B’s Chief Executive, Jon Winter, claims that the exchange initiative will bring many benefits to the Academy and its apprentices: “In a world of global automotive brands, it’s important for our learners to understand the international context of the industry they have chosen to make their career. This new exchange programme will enable apprentices and Academy staff alike to achieve a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the automotive arena in Europe. With the Academy’s influence also extending to the USA and Asia, there’s every possibility that this initiative could move further afield in the future.” Continued Winter: “The need for skilled technicians across the world is on the increase and we actively encourage our apprentices to look at broader horizons during their training. Many of them have already learned the phrase ‘Vorsprung durch Gelehrtheit’, quite simply, ‘Advancement through learning.” In the 2010/11 academic year, S&B doubled the number of successful Apprenticeships over the previous year with some 350 apprentices graduating from the Academy. At the same time, achievement levels reached an all-time high with an overall success rate of 85%. For those learners on the Advanced Apprenticeship three-year programme, success rates were even higher, at over 98%. PHOTO CAPTION: As part of their exchange visit, S&B Automotive Academy arranged for the German apprentices to visit Hampshire bus operator, Bluestar, at its Barton Park depot. The students are pictured with S&B’s Andy West (3rd right) and Steve Prewett, Bluestar’s Area Engineering Manager (2nd right). Ends http://www.sandbaa.com