OnWords: 'Screen'

Mar 5, 2019

Considering how much time we spend with screens, we don’t spend much of that talking about the word “screen” and all the ways we use it.

The screen on your laptop, tablet, or phone is both what you use to view things and the view itself, both the physical object and its virtual complement.

As you’re scrolling past these various screens, you might find something to share, so you use a screenshot, bringing in a metaphor borrowed from photography, a metaphor photography borrowed from gunnery.

We watch films in theaters on screens, of course, and unlike the elegant glass affairs of our electronic devices, we can more readily see how movie screens resemble the kinds of screens a more modest era used to block things off from view.

And so the screen has long been both how we see and how we are prevented from seeing.

This dual nature can be seen in at least one of the verbs we’ve derived from screen: we screen as a process of selection, allowing only certain images, ideas, or applicants through.

We screen a film as well—another verb form—using the physical object to indicate the activity, again, in contrast to the previous verb, since the idea of a film screening is to see the whole thing.

So we screen both when we want to reveal and to cover up, perhaps as apt a word as any for an age as paradoxical as ours.