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February 2, 2005 - Internet Terms - 2005-02-01

First broadcast: February 2, 2005

Personal computers and the Internet have become vital tools for everything from communications and research to entertainment and office work. Not surprisingly, new words connected with these technologies are becoming part of common speech. VOA's Adam Phillips reports:

Internet users may be annoyed, amused or simply resigned to the number of new technical words that keep popping up in cyberspace, only to become so useful and familiar it is hard to imagine everyday American speech without them.

But Peter Sokolowski, a dictionary editor at the Merriam-Webster company, reminds us that, even as recently as the mid 1990s, almost none of those technical computer and Internet terms existed.

PETER SOKOLOWSKI: "And today, ten or eleven years later, there are hundreds of them. They come at us from print sources when they are talking about the Internet and then of course they come from the Internet itself."

Many of the first common computer-related terms had to with word processing, and borrowed their terminology from the world of the traditional office.

PETER SOKOLOWSKI:: "Words like folders, desktop, clipboard, bookmark and homepage. Those are words that are very comfortable to all of us. 'Homepage' was never a word before the Internet, but of course home and page separately were very common. But now it means the first Web page that you look at when you open up your computer."

TEXT: One comfortable, even cozy, word that has acquired a new technical meaning is cookie.

PETER SOKOLOWSKI: "Which, in Internet terms, means the piece of information that remains behind once you've visited a Web site. That word is obviously better known to most English speakers as being a little biscuit or something sweet to eat."

Mr. Sokolowski says that some new terms combine the old and the new. Take, for example, the word Wi-Fi.

PETER SOKOLOWSKI: "And it sort of combines two separate words. One is wireless, or technology that allows for wireless computing. So, for example, you can walk around within your house and go upstairs with your laptop and you would never have to plug it in. That's the first part of the word. And the second part, -fi, comes from hi-fi, which is the old high fidelity system of stereo components which were used from the 1950s forward. But of course in this digital age, we don't say 'high fidelity' anymore. So this word is sort of a throwback and a combination at the same time.

TEXT: Even a single letter can transform the meaning of the word it precedes. The vowel e, for example, which stands for electronic, changes mail into e-mail, and e-commerce becomes the multi-billion phenomenon of Internet trade. Still, Mr. Sokolowski's favorite categories of Internet terms are new combinations of old words that mean completely new things.

PETER SOKOLOWSKI:: "So you have a word like blog which came from Web log. A log is like a diary -- something where you record the events of your day or your thoughts and, in this case, on the Web. Another word like that is dot-com. We have derived it from the Internet address of so many businesses to describe the period and then the com, which means commercial, for the Internet address.

Whether a word arises from the Internet or some other sphere of activity, the folks at Merriam-Webster always use the same criterion to determine when it has actually entered the language or can be dismissed as mere jargon or slang, known and used only to insiders.

PETER SOKOLOWSKI: "And that is if the words are used without an explanation or any kind of definition in running prose in a major print source. And that means in American sources, a major newspaper such as the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, a major magazine such as Time or Newsweek.

"When a word such as blog appears in those magazines or newspapers, we know that the editors of those journals expect their readers to already know what the word means. So that's when the word is ready to go into the dictionary.

Mr. Sokowloski is confident that next year's dictionary will include the word google.

PETER SOKOLOWSKI: "Because it is a word that has entered the language very, very quickly, and is being used as a verb even though it is the name of a company and people often say, I'd like to 'google' some information, or I'll 'google' you to get information, and that means using a search engine, like Google, to get information very quickly off the Internet. I can see that becoming part of the dictionary in about a year's time because it is already part of the language."

And it is part of some non-English languages as well, it seems. Even though the Internet is international, many new terms begin in English, and are then absorbed into foreign languages.

So while the French, for example, have their own word for email, Mr. Sokolowski says his research indicates that French Internet users employ the original English term most of the time, and other languages often take English Internet terms and write them in their own alphabets.

For Wordmaster, this is Adam Phillips reporting from New York.