Netymology: the best new words from a brave new world
In his book Netymology, the digital commentator Tom Chatfield examines the twisted histories of the electronic world’s most eccentric words. Here are some of our favourites
The e-universe is steadily generating its own language. Some of the terms are new and startling. Others are so familiar that we don’t even notice them any more, even though we’d be hard pressed to explain what they mean, much less where they came from. So it might be a surprise to hear that Monty Python are responsible for spamming and that a 10th-century Danish king is the root of Bluetooth.
Where you @?
When a programmer called Ray Tomlinson selected it to play a central role in his spanking new software system, “electronic mail”, the humble @ sign became a cybersuperstar. In Italy it’s known as chiocciola , “the snail”, while the Chinese call it xiao laoshu , “little mouse”. The Germans say klammeraffe , or “spider monkey”.
Now that we’re routinely storing music and photos on portable devices, most of us have a good idea how much computer cupboard space constitutes a megabyte. It’s a million bytes: one followed by six zeros. A gigabyte is a billion bytes (nine zeros) and a terabyte is a trillion bytes (12 zeros). Which, you might think, is about as many holiday snaps as you’ll ever need. Exabytes, zettabytes and yottabytes are on the way. As are petabytes – for holiday snaps of cats and dogs, no doubt.
Nerfs of steel
Being “nerfed”, or having your powers reduced, has its roots in the 1990s medieval fantasy game Ultima Online . Swords weren’t as effective in the game as bows and magic spells, so
the game’s designer, Raph Koster, called them “nerf swords” in a reference to a popular brand of toy foam sword. The name came from the acronym non-expanding recreational foam.
Typing and texting have produced a rash of three-letter words, of which two,
LOL and OMG, made it into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2011. LOL, or laughing out loud, was first used on a Canadian bulletin board in the mid-1980s. It can now be used in a variety of hilarious situations, such as ROFL: rolling on the floor laughing.
Spamming it up
A famous sketch on the TV comedy show Monty Python’s Flying Circus was set in a cafe whose every menu item featured a canned pork product;
spiced ham, sold as Spam. When early digital warriors began to clutter inboxes with unwanted emails, the practice was dubbed spamming. It has given rise to its opposite, ham, meaning desirable emails. And you might be asked for a “ham password” to confirm that you are real and not a randomly generated computer address. Even the Python people couldn’t have made that one up.
A convenient way of exchanging wireless data over short distances, Bluetooth is named after the 10th-century Danish king Harald Gormsson, whose nickname, thanks to an unpleasant gum disease, a dark complexion or a fondness for eating blueberries, was blatand . The Swedish phone company Ericsson combined the runes for “K” and “H” to create the logo. And phone users adopt the technology for bluesnarfing, bluejacking and bluebugging: convenient ways of controlling someone else’s mobile digital device.
Everyone has a story about persistent unwanted corrections inserted into text messages by bolshie spellcheck systems. This is the Cupertino effect, named after the Californian city that is home to Apple, Inc.
Our love of animals surfaces again and again in our choice of new terminology. Trojan horses, of course, aren’t really an animal but a trick, as are the viruses of the same name. Mousetrapping is what happens when you enter a site and become surrounded by pop-up windows you can’t get rid of. And CamelCasing is the habit of capitalising letters in compound names such as YouTube and PayPal, giving a humpy typographical horizon. Which is what we all have from peering into screens all day long.
Netymology: From Apps to Zombies – A Linguistic Celebration of the Digital World is published by Quercus