Metaforix@Health - Do you speak American cyberspeak?

By Lois C. Ambash, Published on January 17, 2005

Lois C. Ambash is President and Chief Infomaven of Metaforix Incorporated, whose services include organizational assessment and planning activities, web site and e-letter content development, and design and delivery of customized workshops for healthcare, education, business, and community organizations. Lois holds a PhD in American Culture and Writing, Master’s degrees in Library/Information Science and Public Policy, and a Bachelor’s degree in English. She serves on the board of the Internet Healthcare Coalition and on URAC’s Health Web Site Accreditation Committee, and is a frequent writer and speaker on e-health, Internet research, business communications, and organizational culture. Read or subscribe to Lois’s blog, Metaforix@.

Robert MacNeil is the co-creator of PBS's NewsHour and a word-lover to be reckoned with. Nearly twenty years ago, he produced The Story of English, a memorable nine-part documentary and associated book surveying the evolution of the English language and its emergence as the world's lingua franca.

Now McNeil has produced a more personal, less ambitious, but highly engaging three-part follow-up, "Do You Speak American?" My local PBS station aired all three parts in one night, so I TiVo'd it for later viewing. From the few excerpts I caught, I knew I would be writing about the program soon.

Before I had a chance to do so, I got an e-mail from a journalist interested in talking with me about "changes to the English language in recent years, especially the infiltration of words and expressions from high-tech and the digital age." (Google had been kind enough to send him repeatedly in my direction.) He wonders, in part, whether the new tech vocabulary is mainly a practical set of new names for new ideas and things, or whether it has metaphorical qualities, as well.

The reporter's query set me thinking about trends I observe in tech-related language, both in the cyberspeak favored by the digerati and in the day-to-day language of ordinary speakers.

Cyberspeak: a powerful form of jargon

Cyberspeak is just another form of jargon, the specialized language that evolves in professions, businesses, and individual workplaces in response to "the need for experts in a field to communicate with precision and brevity." The flip side of precision and brevity is exclusivity -- the creation of a barrier between fluent speakers of the jargon and those who find it unintelligible, between club members and people who don't know the secret handshake, between, in this case, newbies and power users.

When a profession holds a great deal of power over people's daily lives, those who are not fluent in the jargon can find themselves at a severe disadvantage when it comes to making decisions or evaluating quality. Medicine is one such profession and, these days, internet and computer technology is another. Cyberspeakers get to have it both ways: they get to enjoy the status conferred by their exclusive knowledge, while simultaneously complaining about others' ignorance.

Last year, in the wake of a particularly widespread computer virus epidemic, the New York Times ran a front-page article highlighting the "growing friction between technophiles and what they see as a breed of technophobes who want to enjoy the benefits of digital technology without making the effort to use it responsibly." Geeks and nerds framed the issue as a failure of personal computer users to learn the basics of good computer hygiene. But the problem is really one of language.

Busy people outside the tech world generally have little interest in how computers work, how malware travels the internet, or what to do about it. They just want their computers to perform as expected. How can the average user learn to keep her computer safe from viruses, Trojans, and worms when presented with documentation (once called instructions) composed in what seems not to be English, but gibberish?

The highly successful "Dummies" series originated in 1991 with the computer-related DOS for Dummies. DOS as explained in that book is passé for the average user, and most people still don't recognize the term as an acronym for disc operating system -- if they even know what a disc operating system is. But it's no accident that the first and most popular "Dummies" books are about computers and the internet. What's a mystery to me is that people are willing to pay for the privilege of being insulted by such titles. As I said, it's all about language.

(I'm in good company on this. Wall Street Journal computer guru Walt Mossberg thinks "The real dummies are the people who, though technically expert, couldn't design hardware and software that's usable by normal consumers if their lives depended upon it." Well, maybe they could design it -- but they can't, don't, or won't clearly explain how to use it.)

Digital influences in everyday language

What about technical influences on our everyday speech and writing? They're certainly unavoidable, even for people who avoid or don't have access to computers and the internet.

To start with the reporter's question, many tech terms are metaphorical. World Wide Web itself is the mother of all tech metaphors. Where did we get the term mouse, do you suppose? What about desktop and inbox? Even Google is a metaphor, derived from googol, a word invented by a nine-year-old to mean a very large number, 1 followed by 100 zeroes. Can you imagine that many search results? Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin evidently could and did.

Word play and puns are rampant in tech-related vocabulary: clicks-and-mortar for businesses with both physical and online sales outlets; dot-bomb for online (dot-com) business failures; eyeballs for website visitors or viewers; dead tree version for a printed, as opposed to online, book or article; wetware for a human being or human brain, as opposed to computer hardware or software.

Compression, abbreviation, and collapsing of words and expressions all can be attributed to the speed of the Information Age. Depending upon who is writing the style manual, we're losing hyphens (email as opposed to e-mail), initial capital letters (internet, not Internet), spaces between words (website, not Web site), and initial syllables (blog, not Web log). And that's just in standard business usage. We'll leave txt msgs 4 l8r. Similar transformations are affecting non-tech words by imitation, or perhaps infecting them as idea viruses.

Once I've had a chance to watch all of "Do You Speak American?" I'll blog more about these trends in light of Robert McNeil's road trip and the materials on the series website.