Sunday, February 19, 2012


The word has come up a bit lately. Not only in such things as tributes to Whitney Houston  and other newsworthy events, but also oddly enough in my place of work. This is because, after all this time, we  are finally changing to a new computer system. Instead of referring to our old system as just the old system, I'm suddenly hearing a lot about the legacy system and the legacy files, and so on.

Accorduing to Wikipedia,  a legacy system is one "that continues to be used, typically because it still functions for the users' needs, even though newer technology or more efficient methods of performing a task are now available. A legacy system may include procedures or terminology which are no longer relevant in the current context, and may hinder or confuse understanding of the methods or technologies used."

Sounds about right.

Call me a romantic, but I always thought that legacy had an aura of something different than old computer systems and procedure manuals. The more I think about the word, though, the less can I pin it down. I guess I think of legacy in relation to inheritance, to what is passed down, or what is left. It seems to have something to do with law, as in legitimate or legislation. Am I wrong about this as I've been about so many things in the past?

We shall see.


Okay, so a legacy is a gift of property through a will; a more generalized sense of what's been passed down from the past to the present day; a student or potential student to a school that was attended by that student's parent; or having the office or function of a legate (obsolete). What's a legate? We'll get to that.

BUT, as a modern day adjective, it does indeed refer to old and outmoded computer hardware, software or data. It's interesting how in computer terms, legacy becomes not so much a gift as a curse. Or at best an irrelevance. Ewaste in the current parlance.

papal legate of Boniface VIII

If we know the word at all, we probably connect legate with "papal legate", a papal emissary, discharged on some mission to do the pope's will. But this comes from the more general Latin legatus, an ambassador or envoy, someone sent as a deputy or sent with a commission. And it does have to do with Latin law, or lex , in one of its cases (legis).  In the late fourteenth century, then, a legacy was body of persons sent on a mission--I assume a legal mission rather than a religious one. It apparently wasn't until about the middle of the 15th century that the sense of "property left in a will" took root in Scotland.


  1. "Or at best an irrelevance." Yippee!

  2. That is so funny, Kathleen, because I had actually written this up before I read your blog post .

    No surprise there, though, eh?

  3. Funny, I just heard K.W. Jeter refer to himself and some other older sci-fi writers as "legacy writers". Computer jargon has crept over, I think.

  4. God, do I hate this latest use of "legacy," and not just because it covers both my profession and my vocation. I find it's used most often by hucksterism self-promoters, tenured professors of media studies, and other thoroughly odious creatures. It's uttered with the same parvenu scorn as "dead white males,"
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  5. The word has slid to a very different place, and I wasn't able to pinpoint the place where it slid.

    I guess the newer meaning simply means out-of-date. It doesn't show a lot of historical understanding.

  6. It's an ugly condescending use of the word.

  7. It's a bit weird when an author uses it against himself, as was the case with Jeter.

    Although I suppose it's similar to calling oneself an old fogie.

  8. I guess the newer meaning simply means out-of-date. It doesn't show a lot of historical understanding.

    Historical understanding. That's so legacy.

  9. What's funny about the current use is that it actually means something that is out-of-date, but still operational. One of the articles I was reading in trying to pin this down even suggested that there may be benefits to the legacy systems that the non-legacy systems don't have.

    Which I'm pretty sure we are going to find out at the store once our conversion is complete. In this case though the old system is now wobbly enough that there really isn't any choice.

    I ran into a friend this weekend who told me he quit his job at the Credit Union rather than having to learn a whole new system so late in the game.

    Might be the wiser policy.

  10. There's a perfectly adequate word for what the sneering bandwagon jumpers mean when they say "legacy." The word is traditional, though the sort of clever occupational climbers who use "legacy" would turn "traditional" into an insult, too.

  11. In terms of computers, though, it doesn't mean traditional so much as outmoded.

  12. Outmoded, and quite possibly deliberately so!

  13. Well, when you compare between a not that new home computer and what we actually work with at the store, I have to say that the improvements are very welcome.

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  15. I think planned obsolescence is decidedly a factor with, say, Microsoft products for home computers. With business systems, the problems are more ones of cost and logistics, I think. We are undergoing training for the third new writing, editing, and production system at my newspaper since I've worked here, so this issue has been very much on my mind.

  16. Yes, I'd agree to that aspect of planned obsolescence.

    As to cost and logistics, I'm pretty sure we would have kept the old doddering system forever, if there wasn't an imminent danger of the whole system crashing permanently.

  17. I think our new system is designed to allow smoother intergration of my paper, its sister newspapers, and our web site. That's a worthy goal, especially if the company survives long enough to implement it.

  18. The system and the training required to implement it must be tremendously expensive, and I wonder if the necessity for such costly overhauls has increased with the advent of computers.