I did not leave my original on the copier

A document gone astray at tax time reminds the Monitor’s language columnist how technology has changed the distinctions between original and copy.

Damian Dovarganes/AP
A tax form is made available at an H&R Block center in Los Angeles, Calif.

It began with an innocent question: An important tax document had been sent to an old address and then returned to sender.

The sender, when contacted, agreed to resend the document, to the new address. But meanwhile, I was told, I could get what I needed online. But my (incorrect) initial understanding was that the downloaded document was merely a “copy,” not a full-service substitute.

“Don’t I need the original to submit with my 1040?” I asked.

Well, no, it turns out. But the exchange got me thinking about copy in the sense of replica or mere imitation and the same word used to mean – what? I’m stuck here because there’s no ready synonym.

What I’m getting at is copy in the sense of “an instance” of something. When you ask, “Do you have your own copy of the book, or shall I lend you mine?” you’re using copy in a sense different from “I made a copy of my check before mailing it.”

French distinguishes between un exemplaire and une copie. Each of those earnest art students one sees at the Louvre, planted at an easel before this or that masterwork, is creating une copie. But if you pop into a bookshop on the Left Bank with a craving for Stendhal, you’d ask for an exemplaire of, say, “Le Rouge et le Noir.” Plus or minus some production values, one exemplaire is equivalent to another. Une copie, however, is unlikely to come even close to something by Leonardo.

The English word exemplar also means copy in the bookstore sense, according to Merriam-Webster. But I think it’s safe to say it’s not widely used.

We’re stuck with copy. We easily extend its use to software, photos, audio clips, and more. But if you call up L.L. Bean, for instance, you don’t say, “I’ll take two copies of that shirt.”

Perhaps the link, however tenuous, to a printing press is determinative here. It’s been interesting to see the new 3-D printers referred to as “printers.” They’re making “things,” not producing documents, but the analogy is strong.

Nowadays the thing itself is a digital file, a collection of computer code. The paper document dutifully stapled to the 1040 form is only an expression of that thing. One printout is as “original” as another – or in other words, both are copies.

Exemplar, which could have remained in use for our bookstore sense of copy, has meanwhile been used to mean both an admirable person or thing that deserves to be copied and “a typical example,” according Merriam-Webster. These two definitions would seem to be mutually contradictory.

Another paradox of copy can be found in Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary. Webster defined copy as “[l]iterally, a likeness, or resemblance of any kind,” and gave both the “bookstore” and the “replica” senses. He then added a third sense:

“An original work; the autograph; the archetype. Hence, that which is to be imitated in writing or printing. Let the child write according to the copy. The copy is in the hands of the printer. Hence, a pattern or example for imitation. His virtues are an excellent copy for imitation.”

Copy was thus for Webster both the replica and the thing worth replicating. I’m not sure whether to mourn the loss of that latter meaning. But I do know that in the Digital Age, I can’t leave an original on the copier. I can only leave a copy.

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