I was watching a television science programme the other night, in which a reporter was describing the new Eurofighter aircraft. He interviewed an expert inside a flight simulator and at the point when we were about to virtually take off he asked in all seriousness, “Is this a real simulation?”.
Several terms have appeared recently that suggest there might be a new phase beginning in the use of the word real. One is real TV (sometimes reality TV) in which the daily lives of people are cast into the form of a drama or soap opera (an alternative name for this genre is docusoap), of which examples in Britain are Driving School, Hotel and Cruise. Another is real advertising, in which actors are eschewed for a no-frills approach featuring members of the public. Though this may have been forced on British advertisers because of a dispute with Equity that has stopped almost all professional actors appearing for some months, there are signs that it is becoming a technique favoured in its own right. A third is the use by the Japanese prime minister in that article in the Sun recently in which he apologised for Japanese actions in the Second World War; he said that relations between Japan and Britain needed to be conducted by real people — presumably he meant not people as opposed to automatons or electronic simulacra, but people that are genuine, free from affectation or hypocrisy.
There’s nothing new, of course, in using real to generate a sense of contrast to something considered notional, specious or implausible. Ever since the time of Adam Smith, economists have talked about real wages and real prices, opposing them to their notional values. The antecedents of the phrase in that Internet three-letter abbreviation IRL, in real life, go back at least as far as Thomas Jefferson in 1777. The real world, in which we are urged to live rather than in those ivory towers in which we would otherwise presumably survive secluded and separate, dates back at least as far as a quote in the Listener from the Chancellor of the then very new Lancaster University in 1966, which provoked a reader to retort “what is real about the real world?”, an interesting question, and one which philosophers have been arguing over for more than two millennia.
In origin, real comes from the Latin word for “thing”. It’s a surprisingly late introduction into English, only dating for certain from the end of the sixteenth century. Before then, it would appear that words like palpable, tangible, corporal, and incarnate were employed in various of its senses. It seems to have been accepted very quickly, despite there being another word spelled exactly the same with the meaning “royal”. The story that the game of real tennis was so called because it was played by royalty, seemingly based on the survival of Henry VIII’s tennis court at Hampton Court, is just folk etymology; it became known as such only after the invention of lawn tennis near the end of last century to differentiate it from the newer form of the game, so being another example of the long-established use of real to distinguish the genuine from the false, or the true and original from the upstart imitation.
It may be that in recent usages we are seeing the beginnings of a backlash against digital technology, which can invent the impossible and make it seem like everyday life. Special effects in films like Jurassic Park, digital editing of photographs or video footage to clean them up or elide unwanted individuals, the growth of virtual reality techniques, particularly simulators: all these are blurring the boundaries between truth and falsehood, between reality and illusion. It is conceivable that simulations could become so effective that it will be impossible for us to tell what is simulation and what is not. Could we perhaps end up as technological solipsists, having no concern for the actuality of anything beyond the boundaries of our own skulls? What meaning would real have then?