Virtual Words: Language on the Edge
of Science and Technology
By Jonathon Keats
Hardcover: 192 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
By Adam Phillips
We tend to create new words to describe our changing world. WIRED magazine’s Jargon Watch editor Jonathon Keats attempts to guide us through the thicket of emerging terms in his book, “Virtual Words.”
Keats, who tracks such terms for WIRED, offers “spam” as one now-familiar example. It was first used as a brand name for canned luncheon meat but has come to mean the unwanted email that clutters our in-boxes.
“The term came about because "spam," being junk e-mail, and Spam luncheon meat many consider to be junk food, there was a resonance between the two," Keats says. "So that people began to call their junk email "spam." Spam was a term that people could rally around and they could rally against this email they didn’t want.”
Keats is passionate about the evolution of terms. For example, the phrase “Chinese Firewall,” a variation on the Great Wall of China, refers to the heavily-monitored and censored Chinese Internet.
The word "tweet" is more familiar. It has come to mean a short message on the social networking site “Twitter,” as well as sending such a message. The creators of Twitter developed it as a way for people to monitor taxi, police and other dispatches, so they could get an overall picture of a city at any given moment. But soon unanticipated uses developed.
“Twitter became many other things," Keats says. "It became a news feed. It became a form of everyday narcissism. And it became all these different things because Twitter encouraged many other companies to make use of their system and to give Twitter other possible uses, other possible meanings. The term "tweet," though no one quite knows, was initially used by Twitter users and was never trademarked, unlike Twitter. So when we ‘tweet,’ what that message is, what the content of that message is, and what the purpose is, those are completely open ended."
In other words, the meanings of “tweet” have become “crowd-sourced.”
“Crowdsourcing” is a term combining the word “crowd,” a random collection of people, and the word “outsourcing,” a corporate practice of sending jobs abroad where wages are lower.
"Crowdsourcing" refers to a process where many people are solicited to complete a project. It might be an invitation to pore over online photographs that need to be categorized, or an invitation to solve a technical problem, where the winner is awarded money or a contract.
Keats says Wikipedia is another example of crowdsourcing -- although it's sometimes inaccurate.
“Wikipedia is a collective encyclopedia that is created online by anybody, anywhere, being able to write an entry on whatever subject, be that George Washington or a given sort of weather pattern. And anybody also is able to edit those entries."
Keats says familiar scientific or technical words can combine to describe new ideas that then attract further scientific interest, and with it, funding and research. Take “microbiome” for example. It combines “microbe,” the smallest form of life, and “genome,” which is the totality of genes and genetic information in a living organism.
“There is a theory that we are as much the microbes that we carry, that are involved, for example, in our digestion, as we are for the genes in our own cells," he says. "This an incredibly complex idea which results in a whole new way of doing biology."
Sometimes words combine a scientific insight with an activist agenda. "Anthropocene” is a term used by some geologists to denote the current era, when human activity such as carbon-based pollution, widespread industrial agriculture, and the disposal of billions of metric tons of waste concrete and artificial stone are leaving a physical record on the planet.
“There is this sense that calling attention to that and therefore perhaps making us think about having a bit less of an impact on the environment would be a good thing, and that science not only observes the world as it currently is, but can have a proactive role and influence us to live in a way that will be for the benefit of the world.”
Several of the terms in “Virtual Words” are fantasies until some future date.
There is “exopolitics,” which refers to foreign affairs with aliens.
"In vitro meat,” which refers to steaks and chops grown from artificially cultured muscle cells, is closer to reality.
Just where science and technology - both real and imagined - will take us is anyone’s guess. But wherever that is, new words will always be coined to describe it.