My book Netymology: A Linguistic Celebration of the Digital World is about the stories behind new words. It’s a great reminder of how messily human the stories behind even our sleekest creations are not to mention delightful curiosities in their own right.
This word for our digital incarnations has a marvellously mystical origin, beginning with the Sanskrit term avatara, describing the descent of a god from the heavens into earthly form. Arriving in English in the late 18th century, via Hindi, the term largely preserved its mystical meaning until Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash first popularised it in a technological sense. Fusing notions of virtual world-building and incarnation, it’s the perfect emblem of computers as a portal to a new species of experience.
3. Scunthorpe problems
Computing can be as much combat as collaboration between people and machines, and the Scunthorpe problem is a perfect example. Entirely innocent words can fall victim to machine filth-filters thanks to unfortunate sequences of letters within them and, in Scunthrope’s case, it’s the second to fifth letters that create the difficulty. The effect was labelled in honour of the town in 1996, when AOL temporarily prevented any Scunthorpe residents from creating user accounts; but those who live in Penistone, South Yorkshire or people with surnames like Cockburn may be equally familiar with algorithms’ censorious tendencies.
Although the archetypical emblem of an online troll is of a grinning bogeyman, the word can be traced back to the Old French verb troller, meaning to wander around while hunting. “Trolling” entered English around 1600 as a description of fishing by trailing bait around a body of water, and it was this idea of baiting the unwitting that led to the idea of online “trolling”, where experienced net users would simulate naivety in order ensnare the naive. The noun “troll”, meanwhile, does refer to a wide class of monstrous Nordic creatures: a sense that has dovetailed neatly with the increasingly viciously art of trolling.
Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in his 1976 book The Sefish Gene as a shortening of the Ancient Greek term mimeme (“an imitated thing”). He designed his new word to sound like “gene”, signifying a unit of cultural transmission. Little did he know that his term would become one of the most iconic of online phenomena, embodying the capacity of the internet to itself act as a kind of gene-pool for thoughts and beliefs and for infectious, endlessly ingenious slices of time-wasting.
The most enduring gift of British comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus may prove to be a digital one: the term “spam”. The key episode, first broadcast in 1970, featured a sketch called “SPAM”: the brand name used since 1937 by the Hormel Foods Corporation as a contraction of the phrase spiced ham. Set in a cafe where almost every single item on the menu featured spam, the sketch culminated in a chorus of Viking warriors drowning everyone else’s voices out by chanting the word “spam”.
A satirical indictment of British culinary monotony, it took on a second life during the early 1980s, when those who wished to derail early online discussions copied out the same words repeatedly in order to clog up a debate. Inspired by Python, the word spam proved a popular way of doing this. “Spamming” came to describe any process of drowning out “real” content and the rest is repetitive history.
If you type “LOL” or “lol”, you’re not literally “laughing out loud”. You’re offering a kind of stage direction: dramatizing the process of typing. It sounds simple, but this is part of a radical change in language. For the first time in history, we’re conducting conversations through written words (or, more precisely, through typing onto screens). And in the process we’re expending immense effort on making words and symbols express the emotional range of face-to-face interactions. Yet it’s all, also, performance; a careful crafting of appearances that can bear little resemblance to reality.
There’s a special place in my heart for the supremely useful three letters of “meh”, which express an almost infinitely flexible contemporary species of indifference. In its basic exclamatory form, it suggests something along the lines of “OK, whatever”. As an adjective, it takes on a more ineffable flavour: “it was all very meh”. You can even use it as a noun: “I stand by my meh.” Apparently first recorded in a 1995 episode of The Simpsons, some theories trace meh back to the disdainful Yiddish term mnyeh. Its ascent towards canonical status, though, embodies a thoroughly digital breed of boredom.
Also known as “auto-correct errors”, a Cupertino error occurs when your computer thinks it knows what you’re trying to say better than you do. The name comes from an early spell checker program, which knew the word Cupertino – the Californian city where Apple has its headquarters – but not the word “cooperation”. All the cooperations in a document might thus be automatically “corrected” into Cupertinos. Courtesy of smartphones, Cupertinos today are a richer field than ever a personal favourite being my last phone’s determination to transform “Facebook” into “ravenous”.
“Geek” arrived in English from Low German, in which a geck denoted a crazy person; in travelling circuses, the geek show traditionally involved a performer biting off the heads of live chickens. By 1952, the sense of a freakishly adept technology enthusiast had appeared in science fiction maestro Robert Heinlein’s short story “The Year of the Jackpot” (“the poor geek!” being the phrase) and by the 1980s it had become a common label for socially awkward children obsessed with new technological devices.
As this generation of tech-savvy youngsters provided the first generation of internet millionaires, and then billionaires, the unthinkable happened: geeks became cool (not to mention chic) and ready to inherit the earth.
Guardian News and Media 2013