If you missed Part 1 of Words with Changed Meanings (Thanks to Technology), catch up here.
Every new advancement ushers in an era of cultural change, and few aspects of culture are as quick to adapt as language. With the onset of the Digital Age, many already-established terms have taken on new and interesting meanings. In the second installment of this blog series, we look at more words with drastically different definitions than in decades past.
The English language is an interesting thing. We tend to think of it as being as something concrete. Eternal. Unchanging. When we see movies that take place in medieval England, we expect the actors to pepper their lines with a healthy smattering of “thee,” “thou,” and “thine,” but we assume that the words will basically be the same as the ones we use today.
However, the reality is a bit more incomprehensible:
“On mony bonkkes ful brode Bretayn he settez wyth wynne,
Where werre and wrake and wonder
And oft boþe blysse and blunder
The above is an example of text written in Middle English, such as was spoken during the 14th Century.
These days, the Internet is altering the meaning of established words and phrases at a high rate of speed. In Part 1 of this article, we focused on company names and nerd-speak terms that have changed meaning. Here in Part 2, we’re going to focus on general Internet terms:
Java is the most populous island in the world, home to approximately 130 million people. For much of the western world, java was once slang for coffee. So, how did the programming language get its name? Well, according to several different and marginally conflicting accounts, the name was suggested along with dozens of others during a brainstorming meeting. This was all because Chris Warth, one of the product engineers, happened to be drinking some java at the time. A vote was taken, a consensus reached, and now we all operate on java in one way or another.
We still use “application” in the sense of the application of paint to a wall, or the filling out of an application for a new position. But consider the latest iteration of the word: app. App is simply an abbreviated form of the word “application,” but has come to eclipse the original in recognition. As app use outpaces web browsing in terms of average time spent on mobile devices, it is accounting for approximately 86% of the time that Americans spend on their mobile smart devices. In fact, there’s now apps available designed to help you fill out an application, or pick out which paint to apply to your walls, so downloading application apps isn’t totally unheard of.
Before social media, the act of liking was much more passive. Now, it’s the main action social media devotees take toward showing enthusiasm—hitting the “like” button. It’s not saying much, and it’s not a commitment in any way, but “liking” still suggests a general appreciation for the thing in question.
Friendfeed was the first social platform to integrate a like button, but Facebook followed close behind. As of May 2013, Facebook recorded on average 4.5 billion likes every day, so there’s really no question as to the like button’s popularity. Now, most social networks offer some sort of “like” option, although they may call it something else (follow, + 1, favorite, etc.).
As a certain blue monster with a penchant for baked treats famously said, “C is for cookie; that’s good enough for me.” But apparently it’s not good enough for everyone, because now “cookies” (also known as HTTP cookies) is the term we use to describe small packets of data that are exchanged between a website and a web browser. When an Internet user visits a website for the first time, the site in question drops a cookie into the local files stored on the user’s hard drive to record browsing data. Tasty these cookies are not, and some have suggested that they come close to violating privacy laws. However, they do perform an actual service—saving personal activity data so that a website is able to “remember” the user from visit to visit. But is this a wanted service? Well, considering that three in 10 Internet users delete their cookies every month, and that 60% of Internet users would be in favor of laws that prohibit the use of tracking cookies, the answer seems to be leaning toward no.
5. Trojan Horse
Those of us who haven’t read Aeneid or the Odyssey are still probably familiar with the story of the Trojan Horse, that fabled wooden horse in which the Greeks hid to invade Troy. The term “Trojan Horse,” as a result, has come to mean any sort of deceptive danger that hides behind something seemingly harmless—like malware programs that plague the Internet. Trojans are thought to cause upwards of 80% of all malware infections worldwide.
The idea of data flowing purposefully like water toward a river is probably what computer programmers had in mind when they chose the word “stream” to mean a sequential delivery of related data packets. Streams make it possible for data items to be processed one at a time, rather than as part of a large batch, thus conserving overall computer memory. This, of course, lead to the term becoming fairly well-known, especially in regards to streaming media from online sources.
“Servant” is a term that’s been with us a long time in one form or another. In the 1980s and 1990s, it became the gender-neutral term for “waiter” or “waitress.” Around that same time, dedicated computer hardware capable of running applications, internal communications, and communicating with clients via requests and responses were becoming vitally important as the memory banks of the newly developing World Wide Web. “Server” became the term of choice for these as well, and now we enjoy a world in which one kind of server delivers meals in restaurants, and the other kind of server delivers application for use across the Internet.
Clouds store water as vapor. The Internet-based “cloud” stores data that can be retrieved online. In essence, the cloud allows users access to data and applications (in whatever form that may take), without forcing those users to store that data on a local hard drive. Businesses also take advantage of the increased security that cloud computing represents, making the service absolutely vital to the corporate world. In fact, 82% of companies that use the cloud have reportedly saved money as a result. Referring to networks as “clouds” or the Internet as “the cloud” actually dates back to the early days of online activity—it just took a few decades longer than anticipated to really catch on.
Today’s world runs on technology, so understanding how words have adapted to represent an electronically-networked society is more than just a linguistic exercise. How our words morph to service new ideals tells us something about ourselves, as well as something about what our future might hold. Just make sure you don’t get too attached to current meanings of words or phrases, because with technology progressing as quickly as it has, you can bet on a lot of changes to our cultural lexicon in the years to come.
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