What’s on the box tonight?

by Colin McIntosh​
This question used to be heard frequently in the homes of Britain: the box is an informal British word for the TV. It’s starting to sound old-fashioned now – does anyone still say it? It seems a little strange to call an enormous flat-screen TV, less than a centimetre from front to back, a box. The new world of HDTV (high-definition television) and smart TVs (using the internet to provide content) has generated some interesting new vocabulary, some of it appearing for the first time in the Cambridge English Dictionary.

One thing that has affected the way we watch TV is the arrival of catch-up TV and on-demand TV. No longer do we need to struggle to set the VCR (videocassette recorder, for those too young to remember). Now, thanks to the miracle of the internet, we can watch whatever we want, whenever we want. By the way, videocassette recorder was not included in the most recent edition of the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, squeezed out to make room for more relevant new entries. If you miss it, though, you can still find it on Cambridge Dictionaries Online.

Catch-up TV and on-demand have made it easier for us to binge-watch. Instead of gathering around the television set once a week to watch Dallas (I’m showing my age), we can watch an entire season (a new import to Britain from America – the normal British English word used to be series) at one sitting. Box set has now extended its meaning. No longer does it just mean the recording of the show sold as physical media; it now frequently refers to a virtual product, where you download the show or season to your devices, or access it in the cloud.

Of course, the kind of TV we’re watching has changed too. We’ve had makeover shows, with a reveal at the end where the person whose bedroom has been transformed into a palace bursts into tears. And we’ve had shape-shifting vampire shows aimed at adolescent audiences who see a hidden significance in it all. A recent fashion in the UK is for noirish Scandinavian crime drama (also called Nordic Noir). This is surprising, given that the dialogue is in Danish, or Icelandic, or Finnish, and the British public has a notorious dislike of anything not in English. TV Critics often refer to their filmic qualities – well, they are films, aren’t they? Noir here comes from film noir, a ​style of ​film, usually about ​crime, that ​presents the ​world as being ​unpleasant, ​strange, or ​cruel. The genre originated in the cinema, so perhaps the critics’ description is justified.