My Word!


OK, more accurately, my term.  Because it’s two words.  The term is “virtual office,” meaning a work environment simulated by computer software to permit its user to remotely perform tasks that in the pre-computer era required the user to be physically present at an employer’s place of business.

At least, I think it’s mine.

During a casual office conversation in March, 2008, a colleague referred to “a virtual office” in making a point about how access to the public Internet has created workplace portability—at least for certain hitherto desk-bound professionals.  That’s when it hit me.  “You know,” I said, “I think I invented that term.”

For a couple of years in the 1980s, I wrote a monthly column about business computing for the American Airlines inflight magazine, American Way.  I’m tempted to point out that mine was the first column of its kind in the airline industry, but one boast per web page is enough.  In any event, it was the editor of the magazine, Walt Damtoft, who really deserved the credit for recognizing that airline passengers in the early ’80s might be interested in reading articles about computers.

I figured the idea of an office that was everywhere you happened to be would resonate with business travelers and, in September, 1983, I devoted my column to the subject.  I liked the term so well, I used it as the title.  As I recall, it was one of the more popular pieces I wrote and I believe it was
reprinted by a number of other publications.  But unfortunately I didn’t keep any notes from that era about republication requests, and after 25 years I’m not sure how well I can trust my memory.

I do distinctly recall coming up with “virtual office,” however.  As I explained in the column, it was derived from the technical concept of “virtual memory,” an apparently continuous address space maintained by a computer operating system from a combination of physical memory and backing store (e.g., space on a hard disk) that can be larger than the actual physical memory installed in the computer.

But how could I determine whether I really had coined the term?  A Google search failed to turn up any hits for that string in documents antedating my 1983 article.  The earliest example in the New York Times’ archive on the Web was from 1993; the earliest Wikipedia reference was 2001.  So far, so good.  But the traditional way to determine the first appearance of a word is to cite its earliest citation in a dictionary based on “historical principles.”

The New York Public Library has a nifty free service where anyone can consult a professional librarian.  You don’t have to be a New Yorker to use it. The library has more dictionaries than I do and, in particular, it has the Oxford English Dictionary, which generally
is acknowledged to be the foremost historical dictionary of the English language.  But the staff there couldn’t locate any entries for my term, even after searching the OED as well as two other comprehensive dictionaries.  So I’m claiming priority, at least for now.

If anyone reading this article can identify an earlier usage for “virtual office,” please contact me at the electronic mail address linked to my name below and I’ll relinquish my claim to the term.  It’ll ruin my day, but we all have to make sacrifices in the cause of science.

Chris Kern
Washington, D.C.
April, 2008