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Computer words
by Dr Ingrid Meyer

• Playing with language
• How computer words change
• New uses of computer words
• Suggestions for Internet communication
• More about computer words

Playing with language

Computer words often give the impression of 'stretching' language in new ways. This comes across in a certain playfulness, even humour.

Sometimes, this playfulness takes the form of blends, or combinations of two words. Take emoticon for example, formed from emotion and icon. Emoticons (also called smileys) are combinations of symbols such as :) that people attach to their messages in order to express feelings. Another example of a playful blend is netiquette (Internet + etiquette), which means the rules of good Internet behaviour.

Playfulness of language can be found in words that make fun of activities and people that are outside the exciting world of computers. New computer users, for example, are called newbies whilst people who are afraid of using computers are called technophobes.

To be fair, cyberculture also laughs at itself. Those who spend all their time in front of their computers are called computer geeks, mouse potatoes, and — for the younger generation — screenagers. The World Wide Web is sometimes jokingly called the World Wide Wait because it can be very slow.

Some computer words even make fun of the language of computing, as in netspeak, technospeak, and technobabble.


How computer words change

One of the ways that language grows is by giving new meanings and uses to an existing word. Icon, for example, once referred only to religious pictures. Today, it is used to name the various small pictures we see on our computer screens. Similarly, mouse, in the sense of an animal, changed over time to mean a device used for pointing. At the same time, it also started to be used in new ways. For example, we find it in phrases such as mouse pad and mousing skills.

In the case of mouse, the original meaning is associated with general language, while the new meaning is connected with computers. Language change, however, can also happen in the opposite direction. In other words, sometimes a word from a specialized field, like computing, is used in new ways in our general language.


New uses of computer words

Look at the following examples of the words bug and debug. In computing, a bug is a problem in a computer program, while debugging refers to fixing such a problem. In the examples below, however, these words no longer have a specific computer meaning:

There are a lot of bugs in this proposal.
Some parts of the business plan still need to be debugged.

A couple of other examples of computer words that are being used in new ways include download and bandwidth. In computing, we download (or transfer) data from the Internet to our personal computers. Bandwidth is used to describe the rate of data transfer. For example, if you have a high-bandwidth connection, downloading will be faster. Both these words are now being used in quite different ways in general language:

The government is downloading healthcare costs to the public.
I'm out of bandwidth!

Here, downloading refers to moving something from a higher to a lower level. Bandwidth means a person's general ability to deal with things. This second sentence might also be expressed as I've had it! or I can't take any more!

As an advanced learner of English, you will probably be interested in trying out some of these new uses of computer words. Before you do, however, take note that they are most appropriate in colloquial language. In other words, you should not use them in formal writing or speaking.


Suggestions for Internet communication

A good way to practise your English is by using it on the Internet, either in emails, or by participating in Usenet groups or mailing lists.

Internet communication has a definite style of its own. It is often highly colloquial — in other words, people write the way they would speak in an informal situation. To make their Internet writing seem more informal, people use various abbreviations:

B4 before
BTW by the way
FYI for your information
GR8 great
IMHO in my humble opinion
LOL laughing out loud or lots of love
OTOH on the other hand

Because the people you are 'talking to' on the Internet cannot see you, it can be difficult to express emotions using words alone. For this reason, Internet writing makes frequent use of the emoticons we mentioned previously. You need to read them sideways, with your head turned a little to the left. Here are some of the most common ones:

:) pleased or amused
;) wink (used for showing that you are making a joke)
:( displeased or sad
:-)) very happy
:-0 surprised or shocked

Note that Internet users do not like to use capital letters to show emphasis, as in I STRONGLY DISAGREE. This practice is called shouting. Instead, use a symbol such as the asterisk, as in I *strongly* disagree.

For more information on the rules of Internet writing (and Internet behaviour in general), simply do a search for netiquette on any large Internet search engine.


More about computer words

If you would like to read more about computer words and how new words and meanings are formed, read this article in the September issue. See these articles to find out about neologisms relating to IT and the Web.