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Computer words
by Dr Ingrid Meyer

• Introduction
• Are computer words difficult?
• Computer words and cyberculture
• Metaphors in computing
• A special metaphor: spam
• How are computer words formed?
• Shortened forms
• Next in the series


Are you someone who practically lives in front of the computer — a mouse potato? Or are you nervous about new technology — a technophobe? In either case, if you want to master the English language, you will need to be familiar with those new computer words that seem to be popping up everywhere.


Are computer words difficult?

Luckily, most computer words are easy to learn. For one thing, many of these words probably already have similar forms in your own language. For example, the German word for computer is Computer, in South American Spanish it is computador, and in Japanese we find konpyuta.

Another reason why computer words are easy to learn is that many of them are so colourful. They are words that often make us smile when we first hear them such as snail mail (traditional post rather than Internet-based mail) or wysiwyg (what-you-see-is-what-you-get).


Computer words and cyberculture

To get a feeling for computer words, it helps to understand the world that created them — cyberculture, as it is often called. The computer industry is full of young people who think of themselves as very different from traditional business people in suits. It is a world that avoids heavy scientific-sounding language in favour of words that are simple, fresh, and playful.

Above all, it is a culture that promotes user-friendliness in everything, including its language. This means using simple familiar words to describe technical concepts. For example, it is surely nicer to talk about a mouse, rather than an X-Y position indicator, which is what the mouse was originally called.


Metaphors in computing

One reason why computer words are so user-friendly is that many are metaphors. Metaphors make a comparison between two things. For example, mouse compares a pointing device to a small animal, because they have similar shapes.

We find all kinds of metaphors in computing language. For instance, a computer menu offers you a list of things to choose from, just like a menu in a restaurant. A computer virus spreads quickly and causes harm in the same way as viruses spread disease among people. The computer's memory holds information, just like people's memories do.

Comparing a new, technical concept to an old familiar one helps those of us who suffer from technostress. Because many people are afraid of using computers, metaphors play an important part in making users feel comfortable with technology. For example, when we cut and paste computer data, we are reminded of working with pieces of paper. When we see words like desktop, file, folder, recycle bin — even wallpaper — we are reminded of our familiar offices.

Computer metaphors are interesting because many of them are connected to central themes, like the office theme we just mentioned. Here are a few other common metaphorical themes:

books: web page, bookmark, to browse the Web
transport: information highway, web traffic
traditional mail: mailbox, voicemail, address (as in email address)
small animals: bug, snail mail, mouse


A special metaphor: spam

While many metaphors are related to the themes we just mentioned, a few others are quite unique. Perhaps the most colourful computer metaphor is spam. Spam is the trade name of an American brand of tinned cooked meat, widely used during the Second World War when fresh meat was hard to obtain. Because people had to eat so much of it, it became the object of many jokes.

In the computer world, spam is the Internet equivalent of 'junk mail'. It refers to messages that we have not asked for and do not want such as advertising. Such messages may be sent to thousands of people at the same time.This process is called spamming, and the people who cause it are known as spammers. Spamming is very much disliked by Internet users, and spammers may find themselves flooded by angry email messages, known as flames (another computer metaphor).


How are computer words formed?

Computer words are easy to learn and remember because many of them use a few word forms that occur again and again:

-ware refers to products used for running a computer: software, hardware, shareware, freeware
cyber- and e- mean 'relating to the Internet': cyberspace, cybercafé, email, e-commerce, e-cash
techno- means 'relating to computers': technobabble, technostress, technophobia


Shortened forms

Most computer words are short and simple, so it's not surprising that longer words are often abbreviated. Many abbreviations are so commonly used that their full forms are rarely found:

CD-ROM: compact disc read-only memory
IT: information technology
DVD: digital videodisc or digital versatile disc
HTML: HyperText Markup Language

Some abbreviations are acronyms, or abbreviations that are pronounced as one word:

LAN: local area network
wysiwyg: what-you-see-is-what-you-get (pronounced wizeewig)
RAM: random access memory

Other computer words are commonly shortened:

the Net: the Internet
the Web: the World Wide Web


Next in the series

In next month's Language Awareness article you can read about how computer words change and what new uses they take on. In addition, the article will also offer some suggestions for Internet communication.