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Language in Cyberspace
The Internet is a petri dish for culturing and spreading language. Paul McFedries explores the interaction between technology and language in an increasingly wired world. Read Summary.

Over the past few decades, computing, communications and Internet technologies have been the prime mover of language, but then technology has always forged new words. Most of them stay warehoused in the narrow communities that defined them, but some travel and become general-purpose language. For example, the railroads gave us sidetrack, streamline and pick up steam; aviation contributed push the envelope, automatic pilot, bail out and gremlin; radio spun off flip side and fine-tune; nuclear technology provided ground zero, fall-out, and meltdown.

What's different is that technology now cranks out new terms at a growth rate that has gone from linear to exponential. That’s not because people are creating more new words in their spare time. It’s because we have more technology. We don’t just have telephones; we have mobile phones, pagers, satellite phones and other wireless devices. We don’t just have computers; we have desktops, servers, notebooks, palmtops, PDAs and Internet appliances. New gadgets, technologies and services stride purposefully down Technology Road every day, pulling bright red wagons full of newly minted words and phrases.  In this essay, I focus on the Internet’s contribution to new language, examining three mechanisms that are specific to Net neology: (1) How new things beget new words to name and describe those things; (2)how universal experiences engender a universal desire to coin words related to those experiences; and (3) how hacker culture remains a prolific source of new language.

New Words for New Things

When something new comes up — a new invention, service or idea — we almost always need new language to name, define and describe that something. On the Internet, of course, you don't have to look far for something new.

For example, in cities throughout the world in the summer and fall of 2003, people would gather in what appeared to be a spontaneous fashion, perform some brief and usually absurd action (such as jumping around like frogs), and then just as quickly disperse. The language needed a word or phrase to name this new phenomenon, and a winning candidate quickly surfaced on the Web: flash mob. The gatherings only appeared to be spontaneous; organizers used Web sites, e-mail and chat rooms to decide in advance not only where they’d appear, but what they’d do when they got there. A flash mob is one example of a smart mob, a leaderless group of like-minded people who organize using technologies such as cell phones, e-mail and the Web.

Or consider those newfangled digital diaries that have popped up all over the Web the past few years. Some of them are pure diaries, some are journals, most list interesting and unusual Web sites and stories. They are, in a sense, logs of Web sites and pages, so they’ve come to be known as Web logs, or blogs. So popular is the blog that it has spawned its own little world of bloggers complete with culture and mores. This community of blogs — blogistan, the blogiverse or, most often, the blogosphere — is vibrant and energetic. A blog elite is known as the blogerati or the blognoscenti. The opposite end of the social spectrum is populated with kittybloggers, recording the truly mundane (such as what their cat did that day), mocked for writing bloggerel (blog doggerel). They are accused of oversharing (too much personal info — “more than we need to know!”) or blogorrhea (too much information in general).

New Words from Universal Experiences

people at internet café in nyc

The more people who share an experience, the more people there are to come up with new words to describe different aspects of the experience.

For example, anyone on the Internet has received spam — unsolicited commercial e-mail messages. Instead of descending into spam rage, the silver-lining seekers among us take to the high ground to look for something, anything positive in the whole mess. The more spam-related activity there is — from the spammers sending barfmail to the anti-spammers trying to stop them, to the hapless users who have to delete the stuff — the more spam-related coinages show up on the lexical radar.

We fight back with filters that automatically trash incoming missives with subject lines containing words and phrases such as “you’re a winner” and "”free money.” Unfortunately, these filters sometimes corral legitimate messages, or false positives. Because SPAM® (the luncheon meat) is a kind of “fake” form of ham, and legitimate messages are “real” relative to spam messages, Netizens call them ham.

Other spam types include fram, spam from friends or family, and spim (or spIM), spam via instant messaging (with synonyms instant spam, messenger spam, IM spam and IM marketing). Yet another is picospam, a bare-bones spam message with a single image or a one-line sales pitch with a link to a Web site. Heaven forbid that you click a picospam link or respond in any way to spam, because then you’ll get S4L: spam for life.

Anyone who has spent even a short time using corporate e-mail is familiar with a different kind of unsolicited message called occupational spam: unwanted or unnecessary messages sent over a corporate e-mail system. This scourge also goes by the names workplace spam and office spam, although “spam” doesn't seem like the right term. Spam traditionally refers to commercial messages, whereas occupational spam is usually noncommercial. Some people have opted for meatloaf (because it is, in a sense, “homemade”).

The Internet is a fertile ground for turning nouns into verbs

Another Internet near-universal is the Google search engine, which millions use daily to find information needles in the Web’s digital haystack. Google is so widespread that the noun has become a verb that means to search for information on the Web (or anywhere: one writer noted that his young daughter was delayed because she said she was “Googling her other sock”). People love turning nouns into verbs (about a third of all verbs were once nouns), and the Internet is fertile ground for this process. Other tech outfits that have had their names “verbed” include Amazon.com, Dell, Microsoft, Napster and NASDAQ. People who send each other text messages via cell phones are said to be texting or thumbing.

New Words from Hacker Culture

A hacker is a software or hardware enthusiast who enjoys exploring the limits of code and/or machine. (These days, the word "hacker" is also used to refer to those misguided miscreants who craft viruses and worms and break into computer systems.) Hacker culture is the kernel, the hard nut of the Internet. Hackers not only were the engineers and programmers who invented the Internet in the late 1960s, but for the next three decades formed the bulk of the Internet users. The Net, as it developed, became imbued with hacker principles and characteristics. For example, the hacker maxim, “Information wants to be free,” is mainly responsible for the oft-seen desire to share data with anyone who requests it as well as, to a lesser extent, the reluctance of many people to want to pay for information purveyed online.

When it comes to language, hackers are irrepressible. Eric Raymond, editor of The New Hacker’s Dictionary, says that, “hackers, as a rule, love wordplay and are very conscious and inventive in their use of language.”

The wireless world is a prolific medium for hacker terms

For example, the wireless world is a prolific medium for hacks and the new terms that describe them, including whacking — wireless hacking. Another term is wardriving, a hacking technique that involves driving through a neighborhood with a wireless-enabled notebook computer, mapping hotspots — houses and businesses that have wireless access points (a.k.a. drive-by hacking).

A variation on the wardriving theme is warwalking which, as the name implies, involves a more pedestrian search for insecure wireless networks (also called walk-by hacking). The usual activity of the warwalker is warchalking, marking a special symbol on a sidewalk or other surface that indicates a nearby wireless network, especially if it offers Internet access. Warchalkers are also called wibos — wireless hobos — because the idea of marking hotspots was inspired by the old “hobo language,” the marks used by hobos during the Great Depression to indicate houses and establishments that had available food or work.

The Net Spreads the Word

In the pre-Internet world, new words tended to stay within the cultural tributary where they were spawned; only a few were swept into the mainstream. Today, the subculture of the Internet and its adjunct technologies includes hundreds of millions of people. By definition, it is part of the mainstream. And so it doesn’t take much for new words and phrases to catch on.

One example illustrates how a coinage moves from Net nook to mainstream media. The term is bluejacking, temporarily hijacking another person’s cell phone by sending it an anonymous text message using the Bluetooth wireless networking system. (Bluetooth is a wireless networking standard that uses radio frequencies to set up a communications link between devices.)

Both the practice and the name of this prank were invented by a user with the online handle “ajack” who prowls the wireless forums on the esato.com site. Here’s ajack’s post from Dec. 16, 2002, in which he first describes the technique:

I was in the bank today and was waiting for my number to be called as there was many people in the bank. Out of boredom, I did a Bluetooth discovery to see if there was any other Bluetooth device around. A name appeared on my screen "Nokia 7650" which obviously means some poor Nokia users [sic] has his Bluetooth switched on.

I looked around and didn't see anybody around me using that brick... I mean Nokia 7650. I then proceeded to create a new contact in my phone which had all it's [sic] fields empty except for the first name which I gladly filled with "Buy Ericsson!" and made my R520 send that business card to the Nokia 7650 and a guy a few feet away from me suddenly had his 7650 making obscene noises in the bank. He took out his 7650 and started looking at his phone (and looking lost at the same time).

A couple of weeks later (Jan. 5, 2003) a user who goes by the name ste_dexter posted this message:

We need a name for this! ...

How about calling it ajacking?

Since it was ajack who started this thread.

On the same day, ajack responded:

I call it \"bluejacking\" a phone. :-D

The term wandered the Net’s backwaters for a few more months. Then, in October 2003, a new Web site appeared — bluejackq.com — devoted to bluejacking. The term took off, with appearances on Usenet coming soon after and the first media appearance coming on Nov. 5, 2003 (inThe Scotsman, a Scottish newspaper). On Nov. 12, 2003, the Associated Press ran a story on the practice, and the term has been popular since.

The story of “bluejacking” illustrates another linguistic aspect of hacker culture. In this case, we saw that the user “ajack” could have rendered his handle immortal by self-naming the practice. Instead, he did what any self-respecting hacker would do: He coined a clever new term, a just-so blend of Bluetooth and hijacking,and rejected the eponymous (but, crucially, boring and predictable) “ajacking.”

Or consider the metrosexual, an urban male with a strong aesthetic sense who spends a great deal of time and money on his appearance and lifestyle. The journalist Mark Simpson invented this term in 1994. It drifted slowly from one media source to another into the early 2000s. However, it wasn’t until Simpson wrote another article about metrosexuals in the influential online magazine Salon.com on July 22, 2002, that the term took off.

One newspaper (The Scotsman, again) published a long article on the metrosexual two days later, and the word received more press coverage over the next eight months than it had received in the previous eight years. When The New York Times deigned to notice the word in July 2003, it confirmed a bona fide linguistic fad.

Internet Language: Coming to a Screen Near You

instant message screen

Whether it’s new words coined for new things, a universal desire to name and describe universal experiences, or the unquenchable linguistic inventiveness of hacker culture, the Internet will continue to be the source of and inspiration for neologisms for many years to come. With its own super-efficient, built-in distribution system of Web pages, blogs, chat rooms, newsgroups and instant messages always ready to disseminate coinages to the four corners of the online world, it’s likely that the Internet’s brave new words will someday become part of your vocabulary.

Glossary

eponymous adj. Having the name that is used as the title of something, such as a book or movie.

hacker n. A software or hardware enthusiast who enjoys exploring the limits of code or machine

neologism n. A new word.

neology n. The study of new words.

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Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Word Spy  Paul McFedries'  Web site devoted to lexpionage, the art of sleuthing new words and phrases.
  • BuzzWhack  A Web site dedicated to de-mystifying buzzwords.
  • NetLingo NetLingo is an award-winning dictionary of Internet terms that contains thousands of words and definitions that describe the online world of business, technology, and communication.
  • Branwyn, Gareth. Jargon Watch. San Francisco: HardWired, 1997.
  • Crystal, David. Language and the Internet. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Hale, Constance, Jessie Scanlon. Wired Style. New York: Broadway Books, 1999.
  • McFedries, Paul. Word Spy: The Word Lover’s Guide to Modern Culture. New York: Broadway Books, 2004.
  • Raymond, Eric S., ed. The New Hacker's Dictionary. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.

Paul McFedries is a writer with more than 40 books to his credit. His most recent book is Word Spy: The Word Lover's Guide to Modern Culture, published in February by Broadway Books. McFedries loves all words (his company name is Logophilia Limited; logophilia means "the love of words"), but he particularly enjoys tracking down new words, especially those with some traction in the culture but that aren't yet in any dictionary. He posts the results of these lexical hunts on his popular Web site WordSpy.com.

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Sponsored by:

National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett
Foundation

Ford
Foundation

Rosalind P.
Walter

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Carnegie
Corporation of New York