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Technology reboots the language

Heather Hopp-Bruce/Globe staff illustration

Eventually, we’ll all talk like tech junkies. Several weeks ago, after the cancellation of a planned black mass at Harvard, a Globe editorial likened the organizers to Internet trolls — people who post inflammatory comments, less to prove a point than to provoke a heated reaction from others. It was just one example of how the concept of trolling, which emerged in chat rooms and online forums, has spread into the offline world.

A controversial recent "Mad Men" story line has raised the possibility that the show's writers are trolling its devotees. Supreme Court watchers have suggested that lower-level federal judges are trolling conservative justice Antonin Scalia by citing his opinions in their rulings in favor of same-sex marriage. When Josh Beckett, now with the Dodgers, threw a no-hitter against the Phillies, fans on Twitter joked that the former Boston pitcher was trolling Red Sox Nation. In each instance, the Internet term "trolling" comes into play because it captures a shade of meaning — in this case, "going out of one's way to antagonize someone" — that used to require a mouthful of syllables to describe.


The same is true for many of the other computer- and Internet-related terms steadily creeping into everyday use. Though frozen-up PCs made "rebooting" a household term, there have always been careers and marriages that needed to be shut down and started afresh. Long before Facebook, people were taking conscious steps to end non-romantic relationships; they just lacked the words "de-friending" or "unfriending" to describe the process. While it's always been possible to badmouth others in public while passive-aggressively refusing to call them out by name, only recently did "subtweeting" emerge as a one-word name for this behavior. In an earlier era, English speakers looking for concise ways to describe specific emotions and social situations might have reached into French ("esprit de corps") or German ("schadenfreude"). Is it so much worse to rely on computer metaphors, which are literally at our fingertips?

Just because people say "process" in everyday conversation doesn't mean we're thinking robotically. (Apologies for subtweeting Howard Axelrod, whose column also appears on our site today.) Somehow, yesterday's transformative technologies slipped into our speech seemingly unnoticed: global shipping ("SOS"), trains ("fast track"), aviation ("flying under the radar"), radio ("stay tuned"), and cars ("green light"). Such phrases become cliches — and then, denuded of their original context, become unremarkable parts of the language — because they express useful ideas, and because everyone knows precisely what they mean.


The temptation to resist neologisms is understandable; it's like thumbing your nose at the passage of time. We all do it: I like crosswords, and I still find it strange to see "WIFI" and "URL" and "IPAD" turning up in the grid. But as more and more workers toil over keyboards rather than ADZES, AWLS, and AXES, the list of terms we accept as legitimate has to expand accordingly — and not just in word puzzles. Computer culture isn't a temporary distraction that will pass, like a summer rainstorm, and let us get on with our real lives. And once its terminology settles into the language, there's no hitting undo.

Dante Ramos can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @danteramos.