(Not) My Word (After All)!

For many years, I’ve been laboring under the misapprehension that I coined the term “virtual office” to refer to a work environment, simulated by computer software, that permitted 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.

I took credit for the term in a 2008 essay, which you can find here, citing a 1983 article I published in the American Airlines inflight magazine. Before I posted the essay, I dutifully consulted the support staff at the New York Public Library, which researched the term for me. The librarians were unable to locate an earlier citation after consulting several dictionaries based on historical principles, including the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary (OED). So I staked my claim—“at least for now.” However, I added, “[i]f 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.”

Well, now someone has. A reader in the United Kingdom recently checked again with the OED, and learned that the dictionary has discovered an earlier published use of the term—a year earlier, as it turns out. A young reporter for the trade magazine InfoWorld reported in July, 1982, that “the emergence of personal computers that can function as genuine business tools has led some computer-system planners to begin discussing the possibility of a ‘virtual office.’”

The reporter, John Markoff, is now a senior science and technology writer for the New York Times. When I contacted him to let him know his ill-timed article had usurped my only claim to lexicographical distinction, he cautiously pointed out that his use of quotation marks in the 1982 piece may indicate that he didn’t coin the term, either. He isn’t certain, but he thinks it is possible he may have picked it up from someone at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

But lexicography is a rigorous process characterized by an excess of consonants in its name and a requirement that a word to be recognized must be attested by citation to a publication. As I said in my original essay, I knew this day might happen. Science marches on. Newton’s physics was superseded by Einstein’s. And my word by Markoff’s. At least for now. Enjoy it while it lasts, John.


Chris Kern
Rockville, Maryland
August, 2013