As a bioinformatics scientist, programmer and sometime Internet-security wannabe, I am regularly inundated with tech vernacular. The time has come, in my view, for a great airing of dirty laundry. My complaint: the sad state in which the digital age has left our mother tongue.
I write here not to condemn the endless acronyms, chat-room lingo or obscure scripting code, nor even to rant against the all-prevalent i-, e-, My- and Cyber- prefixes. Rather, I am struck by the prevalence of “tech” language, and the way this has shaped and distorted our everyday vocabulary. In my naive attempt to taxonomize this phenomenon, I have roughly delineated three distinct categories of offense: Repurposing, Senseless Juxtaposition and Imaginary Rubbish.
Repurposing concerns those otherwise normal English words now sneakily imbued with new meaning. In a mere two decades, a cadre of Jolt-swilling dorks has corrupted countless old favorites, yielding limping, sulking, chimeric portmanteaus. Many useful words have thusly wandered astray. Virus. Surfing. Firewall. Buffer. Icon. Meet the Death Row inmates of portmanteau prison. All these specimens had an active life before being pressed into service to tag increasingly trivial flotsam from the digital age. Pity them, as you might ache for the Dodo bird or $2 movie rentals. All, sadly, are lost.
Trademarked names are another bastion of corruption: the native meanings of words like Windows, Apache, Amazon, Office, Yahoo and Outlook are all but vanquished by their copyrighted squatters, and Apple is working hard to do the same with Safari. While on the subject, Apple itself is a prime offender, and generator of such droll spin-offs as AppleTalk, Apple key and AppleShare. (At least the latter sounds like a directive for selfish preschoolers; the others stray quickly into the territory of absinthe-fueled hallucination). Not to play favorites, Microsoft has dealt out some winners too: Desktop Explorer is among my favorites, invoking images of diminutive, handlebar-sporting Brits in pith helmets leading an expedition to tame the wild jungle of some cluttered oaken writing surface. “Jolly good, old chap! Let’s go desktop exploring! Right-o, it’s a veritable safari, old boy!” Pardon me, Safari (TM). And yes, thanks to BlackBerry, even fruits are fair game.
The silver lining to this fiasco is found in the second category, Senseless Juxtaposition, where we realize that the vast re-badging effort can produce some true comedic gold by incongruous pairing of altered terms. Personal favorites include such odd marriages as “token ring,” “memory stick,” “Palm Pilot,” “millennium bug” and “warm boot”; perhaps equally rich are peculiar directives such as “insert table,” “drag and drop,” “publish to web,” “expand tree” and “delete cookies.” But even these bow down to the priceless “packet sniffer.” Use it sparingly: It is a true titan of absurd coupling.
And thus, we arrive at the third main category, Imaginary Rubbish. While the preceding terms are repurposed versions of pre-existing words — and therefore lend themselves to ironic double-entendres — an entire genus of the tech lexicon comprises nutty, unreal words that are entirely and wholly fabricated. The online emissions of the young and tech-savvy now read like a modern-day Jabberwocky, replete with imaginary terms like “dongle,” “Google” and “podcast.” Poor Lewis Carroll would pass out reading PC World. Among these vast untamed rushes of nonsense, it’s hard to pick a favorite, but nonetheless a few pockets of mystery stand out. Why, for instance, must processors sport names suitable for Transformers, or 60s-era robots? “I am Athlon, son of Opteron and Pentium. I come to Google.”
Despite all this silliness, the drive to expand, change and reshape our language is an almost unstoppable force; both the re-minting of established words and the frantic generation of new ones highlights the frenetic pace of the technological boom that surrounds us. Striving to tag abstract concepts, those on the frontiers of the digital advance continue to pillage our vocabulary; dictionaries struggle to maintain authority athwart the rogue waves of new words, their editors snap-judging the terms pounding against their gates and hastily endorsing those that blast right past them into common usage.
Those who seek to oppose such redefinition ultimately face a losing battle: Consider the contested definition of “hacker,” which techies have long insisted refers only to those who deeply enjoy poring over minutiae, or hacking away at assembler-level code. As TechWeb laments, “the term [hacker] has unfortunately become synonymous in the popular press with ‘cracker,’ a person who performs an illegal act. This use of the term is not appreciated by the overwhelming majority of hackers who are honest professionals.” Good luck, TechWeb, considering that every major news outlet in the country favors “hacker” for malicious usage. Care to witness a pointless battle against popular opinion? Watch this space.
So next time you boot Windows on your notebook — whether to rip, burn, surf, chat, download or check webmail — remember that what you just read was gibberish 20 years ago. We might not even recognize the English of tomorrow, but for now at least, let’s all say “huzzah!” for Google, dongles and packet sniffers.
Michael Seringhaus is a fourth-year graduate student in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry.