Analog vs. Digital

By Mark Nichol

What’s the difference between analog and digital, and why is the latter word, which originally referred to fingers, now the antithesis of “hands-on”?

An analog is something related to physical quantities (hence the name; analog comes from a Greek word meaning “proportion”): An analog clock, for example, shows the passage of time by measuring it with a “hand” that pivots on a central axis, while a measuring tape represents the length of a tangible phenomenon such as a room’s dimensions.

By contrast, digital refers to a device’s reading of binary units, zeros and ones, to perform functions and to the storage of information as binary units rather than an analog recording medium such as magnetic ribbon. Ironically, however, digit stems from the Latin term digitus, meaning “finger” or “toe.” The path from appendages to algorithms involves the use of fingers to count, thus the extension of the definition of digit to “number below ten.” The use of zeros and tens as the basis of the on-off duality of binary computer systems led the technology to be referred to as digital technology.

Indeed, the word bit, referring to the basic unit of digital information, is a contraction of the phrase “binary digit.”

The adjective digital now refers both to something done or having to do with fingers (for example, “digital manipulation”) and something related to digitally rendered numbers, or to computerized data or to electronics. Two other terms with the same root word are digitalis, referring to a plant popularly known as the foxglove and to a medicine extracted from it, and prestidigitation, a sesquipedalian synonym for magic.

Digitalis is a Latinized form of the German word fingerhut (“thimble”), because of the resemblance of the plant’s flowers to the sewing implement. Prestidigitation, meanwhile, is another Latin-looking invention influenced by prestige, which comes from the Latin word praestigiae, “juggler’s tricks.” (Prestige acquired a laudatory meaning and connotation only in the early twentieth century.) It’s a combination of the Italian word presto and digit — hence, “quick fingers.”

Analog, meanwhile, calls to mind its full-form predecessor analogue (which spelling for the adjectival form is also preferred in British English), which means “something similar.” An analogy is also a similarity, or it can refer to a correspondence or to another form of comparison. Analogous is the adjectival form.

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9 Responses to “Analog vs. Digital”

  • Frank Keese

    In your “Analog vs. Digital” tip, you don’t discuss the use of the words in technical writing to differentiate between types of data. In this use, “Analog” refers to continuous data, i.e. data in which the difference between two adjacent points is infinitely small, and “digital” refers to discrete data, in which adjacent data points, though they may be very small, are separate entities.

  • Tony Hearn

    ‘prestidigitation, a sesquipedalian synonym for magic’. Yes, but only of magic as sleight of hand.

  • Cliff Wilkinson

    “The use of zeros and tens as the basis of the on-off duality of binary computer systems led the technology to be referred to as digital technology.”

    Isn’t it the use of zeros and ones that is the basis of the on-off duality of binary computer systems?

  • Dragos Murgociu

    Great article. One little remark, I hope you don’t mind. Digital didn’t referred to fingers but to digits. It is true that digits true that digits refers to fingers as you can show any digit with your fingers but this doesn’t make digital a term related to fingers.

  • thebluebird11

    Ahh, I learn something every day. I didn’t know the origin of the word “bit.” If I had been the wordmeister, I’d have called it a bidi, a bindi, maybe a bindit LOL.

    @Dragos: I beg to differ. In the medical field, digital definitely refers to fingers, and to toes as well. Technically, we have a thumb and 4 fingers on each hand; this is equal to 5 digits. The 4 fingers are sometimes referred to as the first through 4th digits. Unfortunately, this is confusing to people who believe the thumb to be a digit (which, IMHO, it is). So although it’s somewhat more “lay,” there are people who do refer to the fingers (digits) by their better-known names, i.e., thumb, forefinger (pointer), middle (long) finger, ring finger and pinky (pinkie, little finger, fifth finger). Also, a surgeon might well use “digital maneuvers” or “digital dissection” (i.e., use the hands/fingers) to separate tissues or organs, instead of risking slicing through something by using a scalpel (knife, blade, scissors, cautery, etc). Podiatrists refer to the toes as digits, so there is a big (great) toe and 4 digits on each foot.
    I guess if one is barefootin’, a digit can be any number below 20 LOL.

  • Ken

    Mark is right and Dragos is wrong: have you heard of digital insertion? Recently I
    was a juror on a criminal case deciding this very charge, digital insertion. We
    found the man guilty of sexual assault.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Cliff Wilkinson beat me to it by several years:
    “The use of zeros and tens as the basis of the on-off duality of binary computer…” is incorrect because the two symbols in binary arithmetic and binary systems are “zero” and “one”.
    It is interesting that in the binary system, 10 is not “ten”, but rather it is “two”. Two is the base number of the binary number system, but 10 (base ten) is the base of the common, everyday number system.
    In base ten, there are ten different number symbols:
    0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 .

    Binary numbers are very useful in computers because binary numbers can be multiplied or divided very readily in the computer’s electronics. Addition and subtraction are also simplified, and many other things go well in binary.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “Digitalis” is a medicinal substance that comes from a South Asian herb called the “foxglove” (in English). Its genuine medical benefits have been known since ancient times, but exactly what it does was only found out much, much later on with modern chemistry. The primary benefit of digitalis in people is that it makes the heart beat more strongly, hence expelling more blood with each heartbeat. That helps people who suffer from heart failure, a disease known since ancient times, especially among the ruling classes.
    Digitalis is still an approved medication by the Food & Drug Administration (or equivalent) in many countries, including the U.S.A. and Canada, but in practical use digitalis has mostly been replaced by more modern heart drugs.

    For another ancient remedy that had/has real benefits, there is the belladonna herb. Its active component is called “atropine”, and one of its many benefits is dilating the eyes – which is good in ophthalmology and optometry. Atropine is also an antidote to certain deadly poisons, especially nerve gasses.

  • Richard

    Horrible explanation, for one “phrase “binary digit.”” is NOT contradictory as it is stated, binary means 2 states. On / Off.

    You can have 2 distinct units in 2 completely separate states, how is that a contradiction? Its one or the other. Digit is unit but it can be in a different state.

    This has to the WORST explanation of Analog vs Digital anywhere, it’s a summary of a bunch of diatribe by someone who clearly is confused, probably trying to play both sides.

    Doesn’t work. Pick one, that would be a contradiction to be both analog and digital, but choosing a side is not.

    I have read this post a few times hoping to find something relevant but its just poorly written no substance and its arbitrary.

    Can’t find a use for this post, except to explain how NOT to write an article.

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