How the Internet is reshaping the verbal landscape

Published: July 7, 1996

Atom bomb. In the final days of World War II, the mere mention of the term sent shock waves rippling across the landscape of American consciousness. Virtually overnight, awareness of ''The Bomb'' forced millions of Americans to consider a new framework for the world and their place in it.

Terms related to atomic technology, or which simply borrowed some of the forward-looking spirit embodied by the device, quickly spread through the mass media to every corner of American pop culture. Atomic shakes and Atom Burgers were on the menu at the diner. Atomic-themed toys were on the shelves at the five-and-dime. Rockabilly songs about ''The Great Atomic Power''reached even the most remote Appalachian hollers.

Today, another technological explosion is rocking the American psyche and the American tongue. They're talking about it on "Melrose Place." They're fretting about it in letters to "Dear Abby," and laughing about it on the comics page. It's on the lips of the president and the sixth-grader next door. Its forward-looking spirit is being appropriated to peddle everything from sports cars to cream cheese.

It's the incantation that's sweepin' the nation, the bit-surfer's boast from coast to coast. Hackensack's got aitch-tee-tee-pee and Harlem knows colon-slash-slash. There's a dub-dub-dub in Durango and a dot-com attached to Dogpatch. They're cyber-hip in Cincinnati, and Web-wise in Kalamazoo. Geek-speak's the rage in Miami, and you-are-ells rule L.A., too. From the lowest depths of Death Valley to each high-flyin' cross-country jet, I hear American talking, and right now, she's talking nothin' but Net.

Somewhere in this vast republic, there is someone who has never heard of the Internet -- maybe. Consider the recent case of the Tennessee police officer who awakened after 7.5 years in a coma. One news report, seeking to illustrate just how long he'd been away, noted without irony: "He has no concept of the Internet." The implicit message was loud and clear: If you haven't heard of the Internet, you've been logged on at for one helluva long time, buddy.

At the Lexicon Ball, Internet and its geek-clique pals have now bulled their way from not-on-the-guest-list to the head table, with a speed that would make even the most brazen social climber blush. The arrival of these digital debutantes has not been lost on the august word-mavens of the American Dialect Society. Society members who parse through hundreds of nominations in order to select a single ''Word of the Year'' chose ''Information Superhighway'' in '93, ''cyber'' and its compounds in '94 and ''World Wide Web'' last year - a hyper-speed hat trick for the wired side.

The new vocabulary

''Lots of technology terms move to daily language. What's significant here is the velocity and the breadth of adoption,'' says Clifford Nass, a professor of communications at Stanford University who studies how people relate to technology. ''Most technologies are not talked about very much until they're associated with something earthshaking. The idea that the Internet is a topic of conversation in so many different forums in everyday life is quite remarkable.''

The glacier of language continuously picks up new words, carries them along and discards them when their utility is spent. When telephones, televisions and automobiles became mass-market consumer items, they all brought new vocabularies into the home. Most often, newspapers and magazines are the primary vehicles to convey words on their long journey from jargon to the mainstream.

When reporters get hooked

''One of the major turning points is when newspapers and newspaper reporters get hooked up to the Net. It becomes part of their normal discourse, and it inevitably works into their writing,'' says Allan Metcalf, executive secretary of the American Dialect Society.

Hollywood is often one step removed from the cutting edge, using jargon that's already well on its way into the mainstream, says Metcalf, who's working on a book about words of the year. Conversely, he says, hot magazine titles that are must-reads for both the digital cognoscenti and trend-mongering outsiders may be slightly too far ahead. ''I would suspect the magazine Wired is too wired for many. I know it's too wired for me,'' he says. ''I would suppose that the people who write for Time or the computer columns read Wired and they, in turn, relay those terms to their readers.''

Breadth of usage

If newspapers and magazines are the scouting expeditions of linguistics, dictionaries are the museums. Lexicographers don't actively assist in the migration of words from jargon to the mainstream, they just catalog and acknowledge their arrival. In making a case for including a new word, lexicographers look at both frequency and breadth of use, primarily in print but also on radio, television and in everyday speech.

Jesse Sheidlower, a dictionary editor at Random House, says breadth of use is often the critical factor in determining if a word's ready to go in the dictionary. ''You can have 50 examples of a word appearing in Rolling Stone, and that's not as good as having one in the Wall Street Journal, one in Rolling Stone and one in the Los Angeles Times.''

Using newspaper appearances as a bellwether of contemporary usage, the word ''Internet'' began its journey to ubiquity with a big spark, appearing for the first time in many large American dailies on Nov. 4, 1988 in front-page stories about a virus threatening most of the nation's large research computers. But after the fuse was lit, it was years before the term blasted into the consciousness of the non-wired public.

The Mercury News, for example, invoked the I-word from seven to 13 times each year for the years 1988 through 1992. Then, in 1993, mentions shot up almost tenfold, to 123. (Coincidentally, '93 was the year ''Internet'' entered many dictionaries. Says Sheidlower: ''In a very short span of time, it went to totally saturation. As soon as it became that prominent there was no question we'd be including it.'') In 1994, the count was up to 677 appearances. By 1995, the term was ''too common'' to count using the Mercury News' library data base.

The surest sign that ''Internet'' had indeed arrived in the land of common usage could be its appearance on the front page of the paper without any explanation appended to it. ''Internet'' passed that milestone on March 2, 1994, five years and five months after it first appeared.

Like a pioneering elder child who immigrates to a new land and lays the groundwork for the entire family's crossing, ''Internet'' greased the skids for many of its younger or lesser-known cybersiblings. For example, the term ''World Wide Web'' was coined in October 1990 by Tim Berners-Lee to describe his concept for a system of interconnected computer sites that would be a subsection of the Net.

It first appeared in the Mercury News on Nov. 7, 1993. It made its debut on the front page on Feb. 4, 1994. And it appeared on the front page without any explanatory attachment for the first time on May 1, 1995. Nationally, the term passed the same milestone just two weeks later with a stand-alone mention on the front page of USA Today on May 15. Thus, ''World Wide Web'' made the crossing from subculture to mainstream four times as fast as ''Internet,'' due in no small part to the fact millions of people were already talking about the latter.

Laurel Sutton, a University of California, Berkeley, linguistics researcher who's written extensively about the Internet, says ''World Wide Web'' 's whirlwind journey may not be over just yet: ''You have to consider efficiency - why use a long term when a short one will do? I'm sure you've noticed that people say and write 'Web' rather than 'World Wide Web' because the latter is redundant - there isn't any other web to differentiate it from,'' she says.

As more people become familiar with Net terminology, only the essential parts will be in common use, she says. ''I don't even say the 'http' anymore, and sometimes you don't see it prefaced to a URL in an ad or on a business card. People are going to figure out what works best and make that part of the common language. Tyranny of the majority.''

The Net-culture explosion hasn't just dropped a spoonful of piquant new terms in the American conversational stew, it's also tweaked the flavor of some old favorites. To wit: ''surf'' as a verb got a new definition in some dictionaries in '95: ''to search haphazardly, as for information on a computer network or television.''

And then there's ''geek''. . .

''Geek,'' which has its roots as an onomatopoeic tribute to the unintelligible cries of madmen and fools, is still defined by dictionaries as a sideshow freak, a performer of grotesque acts. Its use as a derisive term for sartorially challenged, socially maladroit persons who speak the unintelligible codes of the binary world probably dates back a good 20 years at least.

But right about the time ''Internet'' was a-fixin' to crash the Lexicon Ball, a funny thing happened: The pocket-protector paladins and UNIX-codin' eunuchs of the techie palace adopted ''geek'' as their own. Borrowing a powerful tactic from African-Americans, gays and other groups before them, they reclaimed an ugly word used by the mainstream to brand them, recasting it as an insider's badge of honor.

So today, ''geek'' leads a dual, context-dependent life. Inside the tech subculture, it's a term of respect for someone who's technically proficient. It also has a heavy moonlighting gig as a modifier - in ''geek-house'' (collective housing for techies), ''geek-out'' (variant of ''freak out''), ''geek-fest'' and an ever-growing number of similar compounds. (Be Inc., makers of the tres geeky Be Box computer, recently went so far as to distribute pocket protectors emblazoned with the phrase ''We Be Geeks.'' Now that's in-your-face geekitude.)

Outside the wired world, there are new, positive associations with ''geek'' - thanks to media treatment of persons such as Bill Gates (The World's Richest Geek) and Sandra Bullock's character in ''The Net'' (Hollywood's Hottest Geek).

Yet, despite the fact geeks are broadly recognized as being a clan ascendant in today's information economy, injudicious use of the term by outsiders will still probably warrant the on-line equivalent of a punch in the nose.

''Geek is a tough one,'' Nass says. ''It's in transition. If the insiders adopt it as a positive, that makes it harder for outsiders to use it to hurt. Once a group takes a term like this on, it loses its power to sting.''

Sheidlower, the dictionary doorman, is unimpressed by ''geek'' 's rehabilitation. ''Geek is probably something we would not touch, to be honest, just because this sort of thing is more of a contextual sense than an actual meaning,'' he says. ''If some computer expert says 'I'm a computer geek,' it still retains its meaning, even though it's being used in a positive way. It would be different if it developed a totally different meaning.''

As both a concept and a real wires-and-boxes construct, the Net is so complex that most definitions fixed in the public mind must lean heavily on the crutch of metaphor. ''Metaphors do serve a purpose in making new things less frightening,'' Sutton says. ''Metaphors like the highway or frontier make it more familiar. It's inevitable that part of getting comfortable with any new technology is comparing it with what came before.''

Down the Superhighway

Today, the Net metaphors that appear to be the most durable are those vague theoretical constructs that can be worn like loose garments - metaphorical muumuus, if you will - over the ever-shifting flesh of the network. In the short history of the Net as a popular fixation, no metaphor has been as used (and, dare we say it, abused) as the road metaphor. ''Information Superhighway'' (a term popularized by Vice President Albert Gore) began as a conceptual tag for some super-network that would bind together schools, businesses and the media.

Only recently have the more slipshod wordsmiths of the mass media succeeded in making it synonymous with the Internet. It appears we may be stuck with Internet on-ramps, off-ramps, rest stops, roadkill and more for the foreseeable future. One thing is certain: We zipped through the Cliche Cloverleaf many miles ago.

Sutton saves her most pointed invective for the frontier metaphor: ''I'm sorry, but I really hate it. The Internet is not like the Wild West. There are no big empty spaces anymore. If I had to pick a metaphor, I'd say the Internet is much more like a metropolis, with communities layered upon communities on top of other communities.'' As for the highway metaphor, Sutton feels it's ''a nice convenient way for the government to introduce the concept to people, but you find out quickly it's not exactly right, it doesn't really track.''

Sutton says that inside the Net culture, she's already seeing a backlash against metaphors gone bad. At a Halloween party last year, some of her friends dressed as the Information Superhighway Patrol. ''It was done with ironic intent. I'm sure the mass market will soon sour on it, too.''

Even without the irony-enriched derision of the digirati, some Net-centric terms will be booked for seats on the Extinction Express, right between ''23-Skidoo'' and ''hep cat.'' Such is Darwinism on the printed page: Technologies will, sooner or later, pass from the fore. If the terms that rode in with them can't adapt to broader uses, they're history.

''There are what might be called 'firefly words' that shine briefly and disappear, such as 'Sputnik,' '' Metcalf says. ''New words are being created all the time, and it's hard to tell the fireflies from the stars these days.''

So what's to decide which Net words will live long after the technology that birthed them has been obscured by the sands of time? Metcalf, thinks for a second and reaches for a term borrowed from the culture of another small screen: ''If you ask what makes certain words succeed, that is the $64,000 Question.''



Which pieces of Internet jargon will filter into mainstream English? A look at some of the field:
Solid favorites
on-line: connected to a network or networks.
download: to move a file from a remote computer to your own.
spam: unwanted mass postings, or e-mail sent indiscriminately.
client/server: an arrangement with one main computer (the server)
dispensing files to other machines (clients).
flame: hostile invective, either posted or e-mailed.
Long shots
applet: A small program (application) written in the Java language, designed to be accessed over a network rather than from your
PONA: a person of no account; an Internet non-user.
digirati: the elite users of the Internet and the computer world.
bitstream: a continuous, small stream of information sent over a network, as opposed to movement of an entire file at one time.
URL: Uniform Resource Locator (or Universal Resource Locator); the address for a resource accessed via the World Wide Web portion of the Internet.

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