Mac Musings

Should Overused Tech Terms Be Banished?

Dan Knight - 2010.01.05 - Tip Jar

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The defenders of the English language at Lake Superior State University are at it again: The University has published its 35th annual list of "words that should be relegated to the ash heap of history".

Officially known as the List of Words Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness, the unwanted words were first published in 1976, when words such as "macho" and "détente" were proclaimed unnecessary and unwanted.

The 2010 list includes shovel-ready, transparency, czar, tweet (and all its variants), app, sexting, friend (as a verb), teachable moment, stimulus, toxic assets, bromance, chillaxin', the phrases these economic times and too big to fail, and any word with Obama as a root or prefix. As has long been the case, several of these words are related to technology.

As a writer, editor, and English major, let me state up front that the English language is the most flexible, extensible, and powerful in the history of humanity. I has adopted words and phrases from almost every language ever spoken, it has very flexible sentence structure, it has more homonyms than you can imagine, and it grows every year.

For all the new words coined every year, only some survive. At the same time, some old words fade further and further into obscurity, showing up in crossword puzzles, Scrabble tournaments, and the Oxford English Dictionary - and few other places.

It is impossible to be a gatekeeper for the language. While the French do all they can to keep their decreasingly important language free from imports, we embrace foreign terms while also coining completely new ones. Chillaxin', for instance, is a 'portmanteau word', a blend of the words chillin' and relaxin' that many hope will be consigned to the dustbin of linguistic history. Other examples include Spanglish and frienemy. Portmanteau is the French word for suitcase, and it was first applied to words by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass.

I'm a firm believer that English is at its best when it is alive, growing, and changing. And as the publisher of a tech website, I want to discuss the four tech-related terms in this years LSSU list.

Tweet

We've had text messages (texting) for years, and Twitter has taken that technology and applied it to an incredibly popular cross-platform system. Twitter, like Google, has trademarked its name and has a legal team ready to defend its trademark.

At the same time, unlike Apple with its headlock on "iNames" and "Pod", Twitter has gone out of its way to encourage others to use Twitter in product names. Further, the company has deliberately singled out the word tweet as the approved, appropriate work to use when messaging via Twitter.

Tweeting is similar to texting, but it is not the same as texting. There is justification for a separate term, and it has taken hold with a vengeance. It may be heavily used, but it's a good addition to the language.

App

"There's an app for that" has been Apple's iPhone ad slogan since the App Store first became available. However, the term app has been around a lot longer than that. At Low End Mac, we've been referring to Apple's free applications and software suites as iApps since 2003, and using app instead of application has been going on much longer than that.

Sure, there are plenty of alternatives - application, program, software, widget, wares - but since when has the English language been down on synonyms? With the term app, we don't worry whether it's technically a widget, a system preference, or a full-fledged application program - one simple word covers it all.

Thumbs up for apps!

Sexting

This was a clever portmanteau word; kudos to whoever first came up with it (circa 2005) by combining sex and texting. It's not technically correct, as sexting covers sending both sexually explicit text and images, generally by mobile phone, but the beauty of the term is that its meaning is immediately obvious.

The shame of it is that there's a need for such a term - and a whole new set of laws to govern it. I could say a lot more about it, but let me just issue a reminder to anyone sending out such images: Once sent, you lose all control of them, so they may haunt you forever.

Friend (as a Verb)

The linguists at LSSU rightly point out that we already have the term befriend. However, it's not the same thing. When you "friend" someone on Facebook (or Friendster, where the term originated), it's generally someone you already know, someone you have already befriended. Thus you are not befriending them; you are marking them as a friend in your social network. There is definitely a need for a verb, and with Facebook giving you the option to "add him/her as a friend", it was probably inevitable that friend would become a verb.

The beauty of the English language is that it is constantly changing. Except for app, all of these tech-related terms have come into their current usage within the past decade - and primarily the past few years. And over time, as they prove useful or less so, they will strengthen their place within the language or fade away. This has always been the case.

If there's any sense, maybe someday we'll go back to using the simple verb use instead of the more impressive sounding utilize, but I'm not holding my breath.

Looking back at the original list from 1976, the words meaningful, input, scenario, détente, dialogue, macho, implement, and viable remain, um, meaningful and viable in our daily dialogue. Maybe we should see this reactionary list as a signpost showing which words and phrases are most likely to remain in common usage.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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