About the same time I started this blog, I signed up for a Twitter account. I’d been resisting for a while, wondering what useful information can be conveyed by a medium that limits itself to 140 characters. (Hint: Disregard Twitter’s own “What’s happening?” and tweet about what you’re reading, thinking and sharing. I learned that from Bonnie McEwan in a presentation at the Foundation Center.) When I finally did take the plunge it became my new favorite addition.
But along with learning what to tweet, who to follow, and what a Tweet Chat is, I discovered that Twitter has more insider jargon than most virtual communities I’ve seen. The site itself is called Twitter, and each 140-character or less message is a tweet. “Tweet” can also be used as a verb, as in “I tweeted about that conference.” Your friends and followers on Twitter are “tweeple” or simply “tweeps.” The community as a whole is the “Twitterverse” or, to some, the “Tworld.” It goes on from there, but you get the idea.
A couple of days ago I reached for an old dictionary and it got me thinking about how technology has changed our language. The dictionary is a classic: Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Fourth Edition, copyright 1931. Obviously much has changed in the eight decades since it was published; but I find it satisfying to browse, with it’s brown leather-like covers and satisfying thumb guides. It feels like a dictionary, with both physical and intellectual heft.
Whenever I have Webster’s Fourth in my hands, I am tempted to look up the word “computer.” There is but one definition, and it’s simple: “one who computers.” Nothing about computing machines, no distinguishing between PC, Mac or Linux. A computer, in 1931, was a person who computed.
After reading, yet again, the definition of “computer” and returning Webster’s Fourth to its place on the bookshelf, I went into the kitchen to make dinner. While chopping vegetables I pondered some of the words that technology has recently given to our language or altered.
Tweet, of course, used to belong almost exclusively to birds and the occasional wind instrument. Now millions of people tweet. Companies tweet. I even know of a dog, a mummy and a dinosaur that tweet.
Google has entered the language as a verb. To Google means to search on the Internet, and it is used regardless of which search engine one actually uses. Like my Grandmother’s Frigidaire and the Band-Aids in my first aid kit, it has become a generic term for its kind.
Friend used to be a noun, and its verb form was to “befriend.” Yeah, try using “befriend” on Facebook. You’ll be marked as a relic of the Victorian era.
Text, when I was in college, was a somewhat snobbish word. We had textbooks, which were books used in formal courses. We English majors (I was one) studied texts under a metaphorical microscope, examining them line by line and word for word as if they contained some hidden code. Not just any book was a text.
Then cell phones were invented, followed shortly by text messaging. In the abbreviated language of mobile messaging, “text” became “txt” and to send a text message was to text or to txt. Then a few celebrities got caught sending naughty photos and messages via their smart phones and the word “sext” was born. (Hmmm… If I use my cell phone to pre-order burritos to go, can I call it “Mext”?)
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other new words that have been invented or modified to describe modern technology. Have any favorites? Share in the comments.