Computers & The English Language

During my college days, I took a course in the history of the English language. I remember the professor, herself a Brit, explaining how "creative" Americans are with their mother language. Yes, we take many appalling liberties but, as she pointed out, a few of these liberties can bring about fresh idioms.That's the defense I use to explain all the computer slang hurdled at us these days. Yes, almost everyone, wired or not, is annoyed by such catchphrases as "Let's interface." But quite a bit of successful wordplay has also come from the keyboards, a few phrases even worthy of Lewis Carroll himself.I am talking by phone with Eric Raymond, keeper of the much revered Jargon File ( This book-length list may be the most inclusive compendium available of droll computer jargon, twisted techspeak, quirky catch phrases, and pseudo-scientific laws of hacker and human nature.Raymond struck me as a frighteningly quick thinker, the type whose mental dexterity spooks us mere sub-mensas. Approaching middle age, he still speaks with the nasal-intensive urgency of a teenage programmer."Since my beginnings in hackerdom, 1976 or so, the file has always been part of my experience," Raymond tells me. For him, The Jargon File was more than just a glossary; it was an introduction to a lifestyle.Word play comes in many forms in the Jargon File. Technical terms are pressed into double duty as descriptions of daily life. For the weary computer jock, "parity errors" -- techspeak for transient losses in data transfer -- can also mean "little lapses of attention or (in more severe cases) consciousness, usually brought on by having spent all night and most of the next day hacking.""I need to go home and crash; I'm starting to get a lot of parity errors," you might wearily say.Acronyms also abound, and many are still in use. Ask a system manager a question already answered one too many times, and he or she may fire back with "RTFM" ("Read The Fucking Manual"). That dull and idiotic project commissioned by the boss? It's a "WOMBAT" ("Waste of Money, Brains, and Time").According to Raymond, The Jargon File was first compiled at Stanford University about 1973. No one individual was responsible writing it; The terms were commonly exchanged between fervent computer science majors.By the early 1980s, the file was making its way around the Internet. But, much to Raymond's chagrin, no one was updating it. The LISP programming language so popular in the previous decade was rapidly being replaced by the C programming language. And with C came a slew of new phraseology. Fearing the file's obsolescence, Raymond contacted original curator Guy Steele in hopes of assembling an updated version. Steele asked if Raymond was interested in putting it into book form.And so was born The New Hacker's Dictionary (M.I.T. Press, $34), the third edition of which was released last year. In either the book or the file form, it is a magnificent read. Even the party king of etymology himself, William Safire, has written kind words about the collection ("A sprightly lexicon," the word man decreed).What gives the file its playful wallop? "Lots of subcultures develop their own jargon," Raymond tells me. "The difference between skateboarders [and computer programmers] is not one of kind, but one of degree."Raymond elaborates, "If you come up with a piece of slang that is provocative, it can spread like crazy [on the Internet]. But because everyone else is creating neologisms at the same time, there's this ferocious sort of Darwinian selection that goes on. Only the stuff that's really robust and communicative survives."Thriving from the same environment is Wired magazine's Jargon Watch, a short but punchy list of recent and witty slang. Every month, writer Gareth Branwyn pockets the sharpest of newly minted coinage from on-line discussion groups.Although Branwyn's E-mail address is printed under each list, he admits most submissions arriving by E-mail are pretty weak. "It's painfully obvious if it's someone sitting around trying to think up terms," he tells me by phone from his home in Arlington Virginia. Idioms already flourishing in the rocky realm of public discourse tend to be the most successful.Jargon Watch is not restricted to computer lingo. Slang from all aspects of modern life is fair game. Favored are the ironic, cynical, even morbid metaphors that summarize our accelerated, detached culture: "midair passenger exchange," is "air-traffic-controller speak for a head-on collision."Brains on a Stick" is defined as "high intelligent experts brought in to work on special projects for which expertise is more important than social skills." Like the Jargon File, Branwyn's collection has been compiled into a book, Jargon Watch : A Pocket Dictionary for the Jitterati (Hardwired, $8.95), published earlier this year.Branwyn traces his love for lingo to William Gibson's novel Neuromancer: "I was fascinated by the way Gibson had taken a lot of different street slang from emergency medical technicians and drug [users] and put those into his world. I realized our culture is being increasingly decentralized in terms of these subcultures."To that end, I've often wondered if the Net isn't becoming our generation's Tower of Babel, each specialized newsgroup's lingo wholly foreign to the others. But Branwyn sees it more as people simply "having fun with language.""There is all this bad press about how there are no men and women of letters anymore, which is bullshit," he asserts. "There are tons of people on-line writing and using the language in ways they haven't in the past."


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