Newspeak: What the Netheads Are Saying

Pity poor Bennie, Chuck, Fred, and Jake -- especially Jake. These used to be regular names for regular guys, but somehow they have all wound up as terms of contempt in the parlance of cyberpunks. According to "The Word on the Streets," a lexicon of science fiction derived slang, a "Bennie" is an out-of-towner. "Chuck" is your standard-issue white man: "Caucasian person. Usually derogatory." "Fred" refers to "any straight, unimaginative person, usually a shirt." What's a shirt? "A white-collar worker, usually a low level corporate employee." And "Jake" is a homosexual prostitute. Most of the newspeak found in "The Word On The Streets" (TWOTS) is not spoken on any street that people live on today, but when the future gets here, the English language will be primed for it. At the moment, there's no buzz around a coinage like "biosoft" because nobody needs a "generic term for any cyber-data chip which plugs into a neural processor to provide new skills or knowledge."Chips like that don't exist ... yet. But the concept of plug 'n' play technology for the human nervous system is a popular one in some circles, and as science continues to play catch-up with science fiction, we may one day routinely use the word "biosoft" when talking about the educational products that we insert into tiny stainless steel cranial jacks implanted in the backs of our skulls.We'll also have to wait for the "Polymer One-shot," a non-reloadable handgun made of polymer plastic. It's kind of like a disposable camera: Just point and shoot. Dictionaries published before World War I define "broadcast" as a method of planting seeds. (You throw handfuls.) Now, of course, the word is charged with all the power and the glory of network television. So too will old words find new life in the solid-state future. Thus, TWOTS gives us "ballerina - n. A reflex boosted female assassin in the employ of a major corp."It's a Nineties truism that attention is the currency of the Net, and some of the expressions in The Word are memorable enough to be earning more attention than they have so far. "Tight interfacing," for example, means exactly what "rock 'n' roll" really meant fifty years ago: Copulation. "Downtime" is a good one for the Info Age salaryman -- it describes the periods when you're not at work."The Scroll" is the "constant, unremitting, and overwhelming barrage of information absorbed by everyone in modern society from the modern media, from cyberspace feed, from the grapevine, and from any other means we have of tuning in to the world state." And the next time you want to call someone a wimp, try "twinkie" instead: "A naive, defenseless, vulnerable, or otherwise useless person." The bible of cyber-patois is "Jargon File 3.0.0." While The Word On The Streets offers a number of terms that are not actually current in the real world but perhaps ought to be, Jargon File attempts to record the authentic argot of the digital underground. Begun more than fifteen years ago by hackers/students at Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology and periodically updated, the File is a "collection of slang terms used by various subcultures of computer hackers. Though some technical material is included for background and flavor, it is not a technical dictionary; what we describe here is the language hackers use among themselves for fun, social communication, and technical debate." "Hacker" is used here in its older, nobler sense of "self-made computer expert" as opposed to the mass media usage with the approximate meaning of "data thief." Some programmers have suggested that a "criminal hacker" be called a "cracker," but it hasn't caught on. Maybe that's because "cracker" is already in use as a synonym for "redneck." Jargon File's introductory essay makes interesting reading -- all 73 screenfuls of it. It draws distinctions among "jargon," "slang," and "techspeak," while acknowledging that the categories are fluid and imprecise.Rules of jargon construction are put forward, the most significant of which is that "all nouns can be verbed." The File notes that "English as a whole is already heading in this direction (towards pure-positional grammar like Chinese); hackers are simply a bit ahead of the curve." There's also a friendly warning not to overdo the newspeak: "Dry humor, irony, puns, and a mildly flippant attitude are highly valued -- but an underlying seriousness and intelligence are essential. ... Overuse of jargon or a breathless, excessively gung-ho attitude is considered tacky and the mark of a loser." In the words of Raymond Chandler, "the cheaper the punk, the gaudier the patter."

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