I love discovering the words behind the words we use. Many phrases begin to lose their connection to a literal meaning as society and technology progress. For example: to drop a dime is not as recognizable a way to inform on someone in a day of quarter pay phones and cell phones, and when you dial the police to make that call, you probably aren’t using a dial, but a keypad, touch screen or your voice.
Words and their evolution of meaning and use surround us. Take the word “bit”, it designates the smallest unit of storage in the computers that surround us, having a value of either zero or one (unless it is a quantum bit having both and neither values simultaneously). Eight bits are in a byte of storage which can represent 256 different values (there are 8,388,608 bits in a megabyte). A quarter was considered two bits making a dollar eight bits and enough money to buy four “shaves and haircuts” at the going rate of two bits. Until recently (1997) stocks were still listed in eighths of a dollar increments. But why would a dollar be eight bits if we had no eighth of a dollar coin? It goes back to a currency that existed before the dollar did. Silver Spanish currency was known as pieces-of-eight and the coin could be broken into halves, quarters and (the smallest unit) eighths, making it easy to make change of the coin by breaking it into pieces or bits.