World O’ Words: My bandwidth is full up

This is a relatively new word, but it sounds like it could be a very old one.

“Bandwidth:” They could have used this word during Anglo-Saxon times. (apessay.com)

“Bandwidth:” They could have used this word during Anglo-Saxon times. (apessay.com)

Here’s a great word of the day, which entered the lexicon with a bang about 15 years ago, and which we all now use.

This word is “bandwidth.” This is a relatively new word, but it sounds like it could be a very old one, a compound noun from the Anglo-Saxon word hoard. Especially the way it ends in a “d” followed by a digraph (the “th”) — a voiceless dental fricative (the “th” in “thing” instead of “this”).

The d followed by the th is the best part of the word. Even the “th” is an Anglo-Saxon — or Old English —sound.

Did you know the Anglo-Saxon language — also Norse and Icelandic —used to have a letter called “thorn,” which represented the “th.” This letter developed from the ancient Norse runes, and gradually evolved so it looked kind of like our modern “Y.” It is no longer in use, though a couple of centuries ago you could read it in phrases like “Ye olde book shoppe on 10th Avenue” (mistakenly pronounced today like “yee,” instead of “thee”). But I digress.

Bandwidth came in to parlance with the rise of the internet, and generally refers to the volume of information per unit of time that a transmission medium (like an internet connection) can handle.

But now it is used metaphorically, meaning the energy, mental capacity or free time you need to deal with a situation, or the resources you need to complete a task or project.*

For example, I am lately wondering whether I have the bandwidth to remember the names of all the people I run into on the street. I can remember all the advertising jingles from the 1970s, and those are firmly cemented in my brain, never to disappear. But if you come looming up to me out of the fog and say hi, I will struggle to for an instant to recall your name. There — I confess it.

It’s like my brain is a server, and it is now full, and unless I can delete some of that information, it will carry no more. What is really annoying is that my server/brain has been filled with things like the lyrics to “Fill Me Up, Buttercup.” And I didn’t even try to memorize them. I just heard the song so many times over the years at Kootenay Ice games that it ended up occupying a significant portion of my personal bandwidth.

I hate that song!

Bandwidth has several meanings over several categories — none of which I have the bandwidth to process:

• In computing, the rate of data transfer, bit rate or throughput, measured in bits per second (bit/s)

• In linear algebra (the width of the non-zero terms around the diagonal of a matrix);

• In language expectancy theory (a normative expected range of linguistic behavior);

• In spectral line width terminology (the width of an atomic or molecular spectral line, measured in Hertz);

• Also in graphing and statistics science, and so on.

Bandwidth is one of those subjects you need the bandwidth to discuss — like linguistics, games theory or quantum physics. PhD country.

But it still sounds like an Anglo-Saxon or Viking word to me. I can see boatloads of Danes landing on England’s shores in the 9th Century, shouting at each other, “Comrades, we have the bandwidth to sack this city of London! Onwards.”

But try as I might, I can’t shoehorn “bandwidth” into my romantic notions of the distant past. It’s a new word. Even the word “width” is relatively new, dating from the early 17th Century — so modern English. And frankly, I can’t be bothered to find out where “band” comes from. I’ve run out of the bandwidth for today.

• Definitions from Wikipedia