Watching the detectorists

by Colin McIntosh

Credit: Getty
Credit: Getty

You could be forgiven for thinking that old-fashioned hobbies that don’t involve computers have fallen out of favour. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the internet has made it easier for people with specialist hobbies from different corners of the world to come together to support one another in their enthusiasms. This has generated a crop of new words, some of which are now making their first appearance in the Cambridge dictionary.

One new general word that has recently arrived in Britain from the US is hobbyist. This fills a gap in providing a neutral word for an enthusiast of a particular hobby; some of the words used in the past have been less than flattering. Anorak, for example, is used to refer to a boring person who is too interested in the details of a hobby and finds it difficult to socialize with other people. Anorak is used in British English; its origin lies in the typical clothing worn by an outdoor British hobbyist: practical, warm, and able to protect you from the British rain. American equivalents of anorak include nerd and geek, which also had similar unflattering connotations – until it became cool to be considered a geek.

Typical geeky pastimes involve collecting things, spotting things, or discovering things.

Stamp collecting is the classic nerdy hobby. Millions of schoolboys have spent millions of hours poring over small, dull brown pieces of paper, and the duller and browner the stamp, the more collectable it is. Coin collectors are similarly motivated. In order to get over their image problem, stamp collectors and coin collectors have given themselves the much cooler names of philatelists and numismatists.

I’ve found it hard in the past to explain the concept of trainspotting to learners of English. Trainspotting is the activity of watching trains and writing down the numbers that each railway engine has; people who do this are called trainspotters. The reaction when I explain it tends to be “But why would anybody want to do that?”, and this is an attitude shared by many non-trainspotters. As a consequence, trainspotter is sometimes used to talk about a person who has an unnatural interest in boring things. Other spotters include birdwatchers, affectionately known as twitchers, who, like stamp collectors, go after small, dull brown things: British birds.

People who look for things using a metal detector are now given the name detectorists. This makes them sound like a cross between detectives and archaeologists, whereas the reality is usually more prosaic. The word was given a boost by a recent UK TV comedy that followed the humdrum lives and loves of a group of metal-detecting anoraks.

The last laugh sometimes goes to the real detectorists, though. Hobbyists using metal detectors have sometimes found some real treasure, including the Staffordshire Hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold from around 650 AD – found in 2009 and valued at the time at a cool £3,285,000.


3 thoughts on “Watching the detectorists

  1. Oleg Markin

    Those hobbies which do involve computers and are not discussed in the post remind me both trainspotting — when spotting new software releases — and birdwatching — when watching out for peculiarities of GUIs. I guess that in the year 2100, it should be also difficult to explain why in the past so many people were spending their lives studying (for free) a complicated but just a tool.

  2. Pingback: Watching the detectorists | 21st-century words

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