“Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute.” —J. G. Ballard
It’s a given that language evolves. Every year, new words make their way into the English dictionary, and old words acquire new meanings. The 1970s saw terms like “video,” “environmentalism,” “junk food,” and “glitz” being added to our vocabulary. In the 80s, “microwavable,” “three-peat,” and “compact disc” made their way into everyday conversation, while the word “impacted” came to mean something other than the state of a tooth.
But of all the periods in human history, the internet age is probably the one that has spawned the most new words and new definitions to existing words. Remember when the word “link” simply meant a segment in a chain? Or when the word “program” meant either a show or the souvenir booklet that came with a stage production? Or how about the time when a window was nothing more than the part of the house where you put blinds or curtains, a desktop was just that, the top of your desk, and the only thing you could surf was the waves?
Then there are the words that didn’t exist before the internet era. Check a dictionary published in the 1990s and you won’t find unfriend, netizen, netiquette, hashtag, photobomb, selfie, or ussie. All of these were added to the Oxford Dictionary over the last ten years (some as recently as last year), and all can be attributed to the net or net-related activities. Not surprisingly, internet providers have also introduced their own new words, mostly value added services like unli-surf and unli-facebook, names that have become generic to the net surfer.
Trademark names haven’t been spared. Remember how Colgate came to be the generic term for toothpaste, and Tide meant any type of detergent? The same thing has happened in cyberspace. “Google” has come to be equated with “search,” even though there are other search engine sites. A photo that has been digitally retouched is now described as “Photoshopped,” even though there are other photo-editing applications. Microsoft Powerpoint isn’t the only presentation software these is, but all presentation files are generically referred to as Powerpoint decks.
Another change brought about by the internet is the way words are used. Not too long ago, you either liked something or you didn’t. You couldn’t be asked to like something, not even by your best friend. Today, social media has changed that. Requests and invitations that go, “Like our page” or “Like this comment if you agree” are not uncommon in Facebook. Then there’s the use of the word “unlike.” Originally only an adjective, this word is now used as a verb as well. When you unlike something, you withdraw a previous approval of a page or post that you originally “liked” (by clicking the “Like” button). Of course, the past tense form “unliked” has entered the dictionary as an entirely new word.
Drop-down menu. Double-click. Right-click. Floating window. Hover. Copy-paste. Browser. Flag. Command. Escape. Tab. The list goes on and on, and there are presently enough internet-related terms to fill up a book or an entire website (both of which have in fact been done).
So what does this all mean to us? For the non-netizen, hearing these terms in casual conversation can be confusing, if not downright confounding. An 85-year-old being told by his teenage granddaughter that she’s just spent an hour chatting with her overseas cousin might react by saying, “Wow, that’s really going to jack up your phone bill.” A city dweller visiting a far-flung town with no internet is likely to draw stares when he asks the locals to pose with him for an ussie.
But by and large, people know well enough to keep net language separate from real-world language. You don’t hear people asking their friends to like their new shoes or their new hairstyle. You don’t hear kids saying they’ve unfriended someone when what they mean is they’ve had a falling out with someone they used to be friends with. And you don’t hear music fans saying they’ve unliked their favorite band because they’ve sold out.
Sure, there will always be some confusion and misunderstandings brought about by the use of net-related terms. But when you really come down to it, these would be no different from the confusion and misunderstandings of the previous generations. It’s all part of the evolution of language.