Let’s go to the videotape

We get used to using certain words to describe things, and we continue to use them even when they are no longer accurate. As we wrote a few years ago, telephone terminology hangs on even though we no longer hang up.

So it’s not a surprise that news reports frequently refer to “video footage” when there is no actual footage.

The term “footage” is relatively recent, tracing to 1842, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Its original usage was to physical length, relating to roads and frontages.

In 1911, the OED says, “footage” was first used to refer to film: “the amount of film used in the production of a film or video recording, formerly measured in linear feet.” “Footage” is easier to say than “linear feet,” perhaps.

In film, of course, an editor would unwind the spool and physically cut and splice pieces together to create the final movie. But because projectionists could adjust the speed of the film, using linear feet was the best way to measure how long the movie was.

Few places use film these days, but we still talk about “footage,” even in the somewhat contradictory “video footage.” That’s certainly not wrong: It’s a recognizable term, if not physically accurate. Even the OED acknowledges its usefulness in the 2016 third edition: “In later use also: part of a film or video recording, esp. unedited documentary material.”

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Other film-related idioms also hang on. You’ll still hear people talking about “film at 11,” which had its start in broadcast news: In a brief news update, an anchor would promote a story, promising “film at 11.” Outside of news, it means “more details to come.” (It was also an Eastern Time Zone-centric idiom, since local news would usually be on there at 11 pm; in other time zones, it might be 10 pm or 9 pm.)

A similar expression is “let’s go to the tape,” or “let’s go to the videotape.” It means “look for yourself,” or “here’s the proof.” A sports broadcaster, Warner Wolf, usually gets credit for that phrase, though there’s no tape to go to for us to prove it.

Videotape, a magnetic recording medium rather than a photographic one, was developed in the 1950s and was reusable, meaning you could “tape” over something that was already on it, unlike film. It came into wide consumer use in the 1970s, when the expression became common. (“Come to dinner. You can always tape Dallas and watch it later.”) And even though videotape is as hard to find as photographic film, many people will still say they are going to “tape” a favorite show.

Any of these expressions might date you, though as idioms, by definition they are not literal representations of the words in them. With the imminent demise of Vine, which spawned the verbified expression “I’m going to Vine that,” “tape” remains a good single-syllable option.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.