A re you baffled by words you hear or read every day? Does it sometimes seem as if the language is being suffocated by technological doublespeak? Is your ability to do your job, buy a computer or read a manual being undermined because whole swaths of English are now so incomprehensible they might as well be in Sanskrit? If so, you are not alone, according to a U.S.-based word-tracking outfit called the Global Language Monitor (GLM), which recently released a list of the top 10 “most confusing, yet widely used, high-tech buzzwords.”
No. 1 on the list is not even a word, but a cluster of letters: the familiar HTTP. Most of us see this all the time at the start of Web addresses but have no idea that it stands for HyperText Transfer Protocol, which the folks at GLM wittily point out does not mean text on too much Starbucks. They don’t really say what it does mean, though, forcing us to consult a dictionary, which is hardly more helpful.
How many ordinary people tapping out e-mail want or need to know that those four letters denote “a protocol used to request and transmit files, especially Web pages and Web page components, over the Internet”? And yet there’s no getting away from HTTP. As the word trackers point out, there are over 1 billion references to it on the Web alone.
The same goes for the runners-up on GLM’s list. No. 2 is Voice Over IP or VoIP, short for Voice over Internet Protocol, which in plain English means the ability to talk on the phone over the Internet. GLM didn’t help here, either, confusing literature students everywhere with its comment that VoIP is “pronounced voip, rhyming with Detroit.” Perhaps they meant Detroip. Or VoIT. Or rhyming internally. But we digress. The point is that even as VoIP becomes a major communications phenomenon its name remains a joke, condemned by its innate nerdiness.
Or take buzzword No. 3: megapixel. “A really big pixel” is GLM’s helpful definition, setting up the obvious question: “OK, what’s a pixel?” As the comment implies, even learning that pixel is computerese for picture element doesn’t shed much light for the man in the street. Yet the word is becoming ubiquitous. Try buying a digital camera without either knowing or pretending to know what a pixel is, mega or otherwise. Most of us simply go with the ignoramus’s rule of thumb: The more pixels the better.
It all just goes to prove GLM’s argument: that “the high-tech realm remains an incubator of great ideas and, at the same time, mass confusion. The industry, with rare exceptions, has never mastered the basics of translating new products and services into everyday language.”
In other words, the largely low-tech public, which includes most of us, can and do use the products of contemporary technology, but we don’t know how to talk about many of them and can’t understand the people who do know.
Does this matter? It shouldn’t. Historically, technology and language have not always been so at odds. When telephones and cars and planes were invented, people used them perfectly well without necessarily knowing the lingo of how they worked. There were new words associated with them, of course, but somehow they were not intimidating. Switchboards and carburetors and ailerons rapidly became common parlance. Even if people had never seen the words landline or muffler or wing-flap, they could tell just by looking at them what they meant. Something changed with the advent of the computer age.
With a few shining exceptions — Internet, World Wide Web, laptop — the latest high-tech vocabulary is not nearly so user-friendly. Nor is it always a matter of fancy acronyms and neologisms. In many cases, solid English words we thought we knew have been taken over and forced into new straitjackets of meaning.
Consider Nos. 4, 5 and 6 on the GLM list: plasma, robust and WORM. Plasma now refers less often to blood products than to a kind of television screen. Robust isn’t how you feel after you’ve taken your vitamins but how your product feels when it’s running properly. (Here’s GLM’s take: “No one quite knows what it means, but it’s good for your product to demonstrate robustness.”) And a WORM is not only not a computer virus anymore, let alone a slithery creature of the soil, but “a Write Once, Read Many file system used for optical disk technology.” But how many people know that?
The problem is that all these words are jostling for our attention, pushing to the cultural forefront rather than lurking in the lab and the factory like the technological jargon of yesteryear. That is why the GLM’s irreverent list feels so liberating. Suddenly, it’s all right to stop cringing and just say it: We neither know nor care what HTTP stands for.
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