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The meaning and origin of the expression: Point-and-click

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Point-and-click

Meaning

Relating to digital equipment, for example a camera or computer interface, in which action action is performed as the result of a single clicked button press.

Origin

As befits a phrase that refers to a simple, automated task, the origin of 'point-and-click' isn't difficult to find. What takes a little more teasing out is point-and-click's ongoing battle for linguistic supremacy with its rival - 'point-and-shoot'.

The widespread use of graphical computer interfaces and hypertext web pages sees many of us 'pointing-and-clicking' on a daily basis - you may well have done that just now in order to read this piece. The term didn't enter the public consciousness with the introduction of mouse-controlled computer interfaces in the 1980s, but with the rise in popularity of autofocus cameras, a decade or so earlier. In fact, 'point-and-click' had been used occasionally in relation to cameras for some time before that.

Point and clickKodak introduced a camera called the Box Brownie in the late 19th century. Essentially, it was just a cardboard box with an aperture on one side and a film on the other. Various editions of the camera were popular throughout the first half of the 20th century. The Massachusetts newspaper The Berkshire Evening Eagle had an advert for one in an August 1948 edition, with the strapline:

Old-fashioned type, no complicated adjustments. Just 'point and click'.

Proud as the owners of these cameras were, they were disdained by 'real' photographers, as this piece from the The Calgary Herald, January 1941, shows:

The club has a number of experienced photographers but most of the members are what the boys refer to as "point and click snap-shooters."

Cameras were a European invention and the first photographers 'took' pictures, which is what we still do here. In America, pictures were shot rather than taken, so it was inevitable that a simple, no-nonesense camera would come to be referred to there as a 'point-and-shoot' model. When semi-automatic cameras arrived in the 1960s, that's what they were called, as Life magazine recorded in December 1962:

"For point-and-shoot simplicity choose from models like the Yashica Onyx and Flash-O-Set."

As far as the camera world is concerned, 'point-and-shoot' became the preferred term from the 1960s onwards, with even the British newspaper The Daily Mirror using the term in an editorial in April 1964:

Dixons experts in co-operation with world-leading manufacturers bring you point-and-shoot press-button movie making.

Most digital cameras don't have shutters, so there is no mechanical click any longer, which must also have hastened the demise of the use of 'point-and-click' in the camera world.

In 1963, the computer mouse was invented. Within a couple of decades, the public began using graphical user-interfaces and 'mouse-clicking'. The hunting traditional is strong in the USA but even there they don't shoot mice and 'point-and-click' came back to centre stage. In December 1983, Byte magazine defined the term:

By using 'point and click syntax' in which the user points to an object with the cursor and 'clicks'.

So, 'point-and-shoot' was the term for taking a snapshot on a camera; 'point-and-click' the term for clicking a mouse button. No contest you may think - 'point-and-click' must be by far the more commonly used term. So it was for twenty years or so - until the arrival of the mobile camera phone and later the smartphone. People now 'shoot' many more photographs than previously and and one camera manufacturer has judged that more digital pictures are now taken each year than the total number that were ever taken on film. Also, with smartphones selling more than computers in 2011, the finger is due to take over from the mouse as the user-interface pointing device of choice and, relative to 'point-and-shoot', 'point-and-click' is again waning as an expression that anyone has a need to use.