The Save Icon is dead! Long live the Save Icon!

Or, some notes on evolution in language and metaphors.

Look: LibreOffice have gone and updated their ‘save’ icon for the internet age!

Whereas Microsoft is still languishing in the days of 3.5mm floppy disks:

It’s a helpful reminder that language and metaphors don’t stand still. In fact, there’s nothing more open source than language itself. Anyone can fork any language and make any update which may or may not then get adopted by the community.

Even the language around the 3.5mm floppy disks highlights another change in metaphors. Their predecessors, the 5.25″ floppy disks were definitely floppy, but you’d have to use quite a lot of imagination to find any floppiness in a 3.5mm disk.

Quirks of history led to the following evolution:

  1. The genuinely floppy disk (5.25″) is called a ‘floppy disk’
  2. Its next generation (3.5mm) is in a hard case but is still called a floppy disk
  3. Application developers adopt the hard-cased floppy disk as the save icon
  4. Which now becomes known as the save icon but no-one knows why
  5. Until eventually it gets replaced by something that is more familiar to people – a download to your local machine icon

Unless you and I share the same history then what is intuitive for me may well be counter-intuitive to you.

My kids (for example) have no idea that the 3.5mm floppy disk icon means “save”. They can learn this but they won’t get the meaning of it in the same way as someone who has carried around handfuls of these disk at a time. A “download” icon is much more intuitive for them. On the other hand, I am so used to the floppy disk icon meaning save that it took me some time to figure out that LibreOffice had changed it – goes to show that you look for what you expect to find.

Some more entertaining discussion around the save icon:

A non-tech example of metaphors and their evolution: I only learnt last week the backstory behind a ‘reverse ferret‘, even though I’ve seen Private Eye use it all the time (or perhaps they are just using it more in these recent days). Now I know the history I’ll understand better the joke whenever they use it.


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