3Qs: Neologisms for the internet age

Neologisms for the internet age
Heather Littlefield is an associate academic specialist and head advisor of the Linguistics Program in the College of Science. Credit: Mike Mazzanti

Oxford Dic­tio­naries Online, the online-​​only sub­sidiary of the Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary, recently added sev­eral words to its data­base that high­light our wide­spread usage of dig­ital lan­guage in everyday con­ver­sa­tion. The addi­tion of words such as "lolz," "pho­to­bombing" and "mwa­ha­haha" are a tes­ta­ment to our ever-​​growing sym­bi­otic rela­tion­ships with tech­nology and social media. Northeastern University office asked Heather Lit­tle­field, asso­ciate aca­d­emic spe­cialist and head advisor of the lin­guis­tics pro­gram in the Col­lege of Sci­ence, to com­ment on our modern taste for dig­ital jargon.

Is the integration of Internet neologisms into everyday conversation inevitable? What are some examples of digital language from the past that have made their way into our daily vernacular?

Yes, it does seem inevitable. When a cul­ture inte­grates some­thing new—a new tech­nology, for example, or an art form or belief system—new vocab­u­lary enters the lan­guage, giving us the vocab­u­lary we need to talk about it. There are many ways of han­dling this—some­times a lan­guage will borrow from another lan­guage, but often we draw on the resources of our own lan­guage. Since the United States has been at the fore­front of devel­oping com­puter, Internet, cell phone and dig­ital tech­nolo­gies, many of the words for those tech­nolo­gies come from English.

Keeping in mind that these tech­nolo­gies have only been in wide­spread use for the last 20 or 30 years, the words that have entered the lan­guage are very new. But they are so per­va­sive and widely used that we don't even think of them as new any­more! Think about mouse, virus, cookie, thumb­nail and icon: these words are now used in a com­pletely dif­ferent sense than had orig­i­nally been intended. Or think about all of the new com­pounds that we've cre­ated: upload, down­load, log-​​in, home­page, World Wide Web, web­site, flash­drive, smart­phone, and so on.  Con­sider acronyms such as GPS, OMG, LOL, PC, DVD, CD, URL and USB; blends such as mal­ware (from mali­cious soft­ware) and blog (weblog); clip­pings such as app (short for appli­ca­tion) and net (for Internet); and the use of trade­names and prod­ucts such as Google, Skype, iPod, and iPhone.

Since this new lingo is so relative to today's society, what are the chances of the words becoming outdated and seen in hindsight as poor additions to the Oxford Dictionaries Online?

Lan­guages are in a state of con­stant change because they reflect the needs of their speakers. Speakers alter the lin­guistic system to keep it useful and up-​​to-​​date: They create new words and forget old words that are no longer useful. Think about the many terms for horse-​​drawn vehi­cles in the 18th and 19th cen­turies: We might rec­og­nize a few of the words, but we prob­ably wouldn't be able to dis­tin­guish one type from another. As long as the tech­nology is being used, the lan­guage will keep those words; once they aren't useful, they'll be lost from the gen­eral lexicon.

Dic­tio­naries are really just a way of tracking what the lan­guage is doing. Dic­tio­nary edi­tors add and omit words all the time; they try to cap­ture what is cur­rent. I think the Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary—the ulti­mate Eng­lish ref­er­ence book—does this quar­terly. When words become too out­dated, the dic­tio­nary might just omit them (the OED doesn't really do this, as it's a repos­i­tory of our his­tor­ical knowl­edge of the lan­guage). This is why it is so fun to read dic­tio­naries from other eras, although dic­tio­naries them­selves are fairly new, having been devel­oped as we think of them in the 17th century.

Do you anticipate a backlash from traditional linguists or rhetoricians following the addition of these modern digital terms?

This is a great ques­tion. The catch line for a new article in Time mag­a­zine is "Do you ever get the feeling that we're get­ting less artic­u­late?" It seems to be a common com­plaint that our lan­guage is dete­ri­o­rating because of recent change. I can't speak for rhetori­cians, but lin­guists would not have any prej­u­dice about new words entering the lan­guage or being added to a dic­tio­nary. We know that as the times change, speakers' needs change, and so does the lan­guage.  It's inevitable, and it's a won­derful, inter­esting process to be a part of. Just think of all those new words we get to use.

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