The Word As We Knew It

June 17, 2009 at 10:46 pm 2 comments

darwin chatOver time, the definitions of words have evolved and adapted to their environments.  Much as Darwin’s theory of evolution postulates a survival of the fittest for species within a given environment, language also seems to have its own breed of natural selection.

Certain words and meanings become extinct- in modern day America the ‘rad’ and ‘righteous’ slang of the 1960s has all but died off. Other words evolve and continue to take on new meanings as they are placed under different societal pressures.  For example, the word ‘computer’ in the 17th century referred to a person who performs mathematical calculations.  Today, ‘computer’ has clearly evolved into a word with a completely different set of meanings and connotations.  Circuits, bits, robots, mechanics, PCs, networks and the internet are all associations that easily come to our minds, but would baffle any 17th century citizen.

The internet and its unique ability to rapidly share information across the planet has created a sort of ‘hot-bed’ for the evolution of language.  New phrases, words, acronyms and slangs have been given the ability to virally evolve and disseminate to new populations within a matter of days.  Definitions are born, morph, and die based on the evolving collective consciousness of humanity.

Take the slang word ‘Photoshopped.’  This word has evolved based on the popularity of the Adobe photo-editing application, Photoshop.  When it first emerged as a new word, it was simply taken to be the utilization of a specific software solution to modify or edit a photo.  It then evolved to encompass a new set of societal conditions.   Print magazine models were said to be ‘Photoshopped’ due to the high occurrence of airbrushing and re-touching work that went into their shots.   More recently, ‘Photoshopped’ can even refer to something non-digital that is unlikely to be true or may be an illusion.

Another word that has undertaken similar stages of mutation is ‘router.’  The original definition was a person who routed items from one location to another- a sort of latter-day postal service employee.  Technological innovation once again selected for the dominant meaning when Standford’s William Yeager designed the first router to distribute packets of information across a network of computers.   As consumer and enterprise networking-use exploded over the next 3 decades, the definition of the router once again evolved.

No longer is a router simply a piece of network hardware that routes packets of information from one location to another.  Today, a ‘router’ encompasses a slew of different pieces of network equipment, from VPNs and Firewalls to Blade Servers.  Solutions such as Cisco’s Integrated Service Router are melding multiple functions into all-in-one solutions in order to make networking more seamless.  We once used router to refer to a singular device, wheras we now may be referring to a number of devices daisy-chained together.

Technology’s impact on the evolution of language cannot be understated.   The internet is not only a pressure cooker for the new meanings of old words, but also a breeding ground for new sorts of language all together.  Although considered primarily the ammunition of text-messaging teenagers, abbreviations (lol, rotfl, wtf, brb, gtg, etc.) are becoming more than meets the eye.  ‘LOL’ possesses a completely different meaning than the words ‘Laugh out Loud’ written fully.   In fact, ‘Laugh out Loud’ written in full could either be interpreted as sarcasm or the product of an out-of-fashion text message.

This exponential burst in language evolution due to technological progress poses several interesting questions.  Will the internet’s ability to disperse and disseminate meaning eventually create more language sub-sets?  Will it work  as a sort of ‘meme drift’ that isolates specific groups to only communicate with one another?  Or will the internet’s access to information act as a ‘Rosetta Stone,’ and create a larger set of universal words that can be spoken across various cultures?

Citations:

Network World, ‘What is a Router?’:  http://www.networkworld.com/news/2009/061709-what-is-a-router.html

Princenton Wordnet:   wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn

Wikipedia, ‘William Yeager’: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Yeager

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Entry filed under: computers, evolution, language, technology, used router. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. John Lundin  |  June 18, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    wonderful little piece on the “life of a word”… would be even better if it had citations about where the attributable ideas and research came from… then it would be a reference piece for lots of word-based research. Any chance there is an annotated version? John

    Reply
    • 2. Darwin  |  June 18, 2009 at 4:59 pm

      thank you for the comment John.

      I added citations below the article. No annotated version currently

      Reply

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