Language is a primary carrier of memes. Complex organizations of experiences, ideas and worldviews are grown in the moist host body of language. Language is a critical part of the ecosystem of the mind. Modern (and pre-modern) language was based on a model of absolute truth and a tight coupling of the name and the thing named. It was very much a product of Enlightenment thinking. Dictionary committees and lethargic networks of academics banded together to ward off the invasion of the lexicographically incorrect. Words had to pay their dues and patiently wait their turn before they were allowed to take their place in the great Book of the Word. The balance of conservatism versus flexibility, necessary to any functioning ecosystem, was unquestionably tipped towards conservation.
Language in our post-modern world is fast, funky, novel, and experimental. The pendulum has swung wide in the opposite direction. And isn't it grand!? For anyone who loves to have elastic fun with language and doesn't take it *too* seriously, this is a time for celebration. The languages of the globe are running rampant all over it, every subculture, youth gang, and leisure/sport culture has its own cool lingo, crazies are creating their own cults, languages, and pocket universes while deconstructionist writers and artists have taken to using text like raw building material. While ultimately this may turn out to be just as boring (and limiting) as the lexical imperialism of the past, there's plenty of time for fun and games in the Panic interzone between the language of the past and the languages of the future.
Perhaps the first intense wave of corrosive neologism entered the language during the first two world wars and the great scientific and technological leaps that were made during them. Scientific and technical lingo quickly began to threaten the white picket fences of proper English. Lingo turned to slang and slang made its way from military, scientific, and technical circles into the general parlance. This process has gradually sped up, reaching terminal velocity with the advent of the computer and the PC revolution.
Computer and Techno-culture is becoming a significant force in our society. The sophistication of micro-technology is making it fun and empowering for lots of different people to get "personal" with their technology. Out of their joys, frustrations, superstitions, and their desire to name totally new experiences and ways of doing things, new language is emerging.
Several recent books from MIT Press examine the language of techo-culture. "Technobabble" (1991, 268 pgs., HB, $22.95) by John A. Barry takes a rather stuffed shirt approach to our slippage into techno-speak. This book focuses on the misuse of technical jargon and slang by technology sales and marketing people, the media, and the culture at large. While many of Barry's observations and criticisms are valid, they almost totally ignore the richness and cleverness of techno-lingo when it is "properly" used. Any slang, taken out of its resident culture is going to falter and sound stupid. The flip side of "Technobabble" is the "New Hacker's Dictionary" (1991, 433 pgs., pb, $10.95) edited by Eric Raymond. This is an updated, re-edited version of the Jargon File which has been floating around the nets for years. It is not only a worthwhile collection of unofficial technical terms and street tech slang, but it is also a de facto ethnography of the early years of computer culture. Here are some excerpts from the dictionary:
angry fruit salad n. A bad visual interface that uses too many Êcolors.
asbestos longjohns n. Notional garments often donned by USENET posters just before emitting a remark they expect will elicit flamage.
bit rot n. Also bit decay. Hypothetical disease the existence of which has been deduced from the observation that unused programs or features will often stop working after sufficient time has passed, even if "nothing has changed." The theory explains that bits decay as if they were radioactive.
casters-up mode n. Yet another synonym for "broken" or "down."
cybercrud n. Obfuscatory tech-talk. The computer equivalent of bureaucratese.
dickless workstation n. Extremely pejorative hackerism for "diskless workstation", a class of botches including the Sun 3/50 and other machines designed exclusively to network with an expensive central disk server. These combine all the disadvantages of time-sharing with all the disadvantages of distributed personal computers.
droid n. A person exhibiting...a naive trust in the wisdom of the parent organization or "the system."
drool-proof paper n. Documentation which has been obsessively "dumbed down," to the point where only a cretin could bear to read it, is said to have succumbed to the "drool-proof paper syndrome" or to have been "written on drool-proof paper". For example, this is an actual quote from Apple's LaserWriter manual: "Do not expose your LaserWriter to open fire or flame."
examining the entrails n. The process of groveling through a core dump or hex image in the attempt to discover the bug that brought a program or system down.
feature shock n. A user's confusion when confronted with a package that has too many features and poor introductory material.
field servoid n. Rep for a field service organization. This has many of the same implications of "droid."
flame war n. An acrimonious dispute, especially when conducted on a public electronic forum such as USENET.
fuggly adj. Emphatic form of funky; funky + ugly. Unusually for hacker slang, this may actually derive from black street-jive. To say it properly, the first syllable should be growled rather than spoken. Usage: humorous. "Man, the ASCII-to- EBCDIC code in that printer driver is *fuggly*."
geek out v. To temporarily enter techno-nerd mode while in a non-hackish context, for example at parties held near computer equipment.
Godzillagram n. [from Japan's national hero] 1. A network packet that in theory is a broadcast to every machine in the universe. The typical case of this is an IP datagram whose destination IP address is [255.255.255.255]. Fortunately, few gateways are foolish enough to attempt to implement this! 2. A network packet of maximum size. An IP Godzillagram has 65,536 octets.
hamster n. A particularly slick little piece of code that does one thing well; a small self-contained hack. The image is of a hamster happily spinning its exercise wheel.
heisenbug [from Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle in quantum physics] n. A bug that disappears or alters its behavior when one attempts to probe or isolate it. Antonym of Bohr bug. See also "mandelbug."
Helen Keller mode n. State of a hardware or software system that is deaf, dumb, and blind, i.e., accepting no input and generating no output, usually due to an infinite loop or some other excursion into deep space. (Unfair to the real Helen Keller, whose success at learning speech was triumphant.)
liveware n. 1. Synonym for wetware. Less common. 2. [Cambridge] Vermin. "Waiter, there's some liveware in my salad..."
lunatic fringe n. Customers who can be relied upon to accept release 1 versions of software.
mandelbug [from the Mandelbrot set] n. A bug whose underlying causes are so complex and obscure as to make its behavior appear chaotic or even non-deterministic.
marketroid alt. marketing slime, marketing droid, marketeer n. A member of a company's marketing department, esp. one who promises users that the next version of a product will have features that are not actually scheduled for inclusion, are extremely difficult to implement, and/or violate the laws of physics. Derogatory. Used by techies.
mickey n. The resolution unit of mouse movement.
Microsloth Windows n. Hackerism for "Microsoft Windows," a windowing system for the IBM-PC which is so limited bug-for-bug compatibility with "mess-dos" that it is agonizingly slow on anything less than a fast 386.
Mongolian Hordes technique n. Development by "gang bang" (poss. from the Sixties counterculture expression "Mongolian clusterfuck" for a public orgy). Implies that large numbers of inexperienced programmers are being put on a job better performed by a few skilled ones.
mouse droppings n. Pixels (usually single) that are not properly restored when the mouse moves away from a particular location on the screen, producing the appearance that the mouse pointer has left droppings behind.
neophilia n. The trait of being excited and pleased by novelty. Common trait of most hackers, SF fans, and members of several other connected "leading-edge" subcultures including the pro-technology "Whole-Earth" wing of the ecology movement, space activists, many members of Mensa, and the Discordian/ neo-pagan underground. All these groups overlap heavily and (where evidence is available) seem to share characteristic hacker tropisms for science fiction, music and oriental food.
nyetwork [from Russian "nyet" = no] n. A network, when it is acting flaky or is down.
pain in the net n. A "flamer."
sagan [from Carl Sagan's TV series "Cosmos"; think "billions and billions"] n. A large quantity of anything. "The U.S. spends sagans on bombs and welfare - hard to say which is more destructive."
shelfware n. Software purchased on a whim (by an individual user) or in accordance with policy (by a corporation or government), but not actually required for any particular use. Therefore, it often ends up on some shelf.
sneakernet n. Term used (generally with ironic intent) for transfer of electronic information by physically carrying tape, disks, or some other media from one machine to another. "Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon filled with magtape, or a 747 filled with CD-ROMs."
tits on a keyboard n. Small bumps on certain keycaps to keep touch-typists registered (usually on the '5' of a numeric keypad, and on the 'F' and 'J' of a QWERTY keyboard.
troglodyte mode n. Programming with the lights turned off, sunglasses on, and the terminal inverted (black on white) because you've been up for so many days straight that your eyes hurt. Loud music blaring from a stereo stacked in the corner is optional but recommended.
wave a dead chicken v. To perform a ritual in the direction of crashed software or hardware that one believes to be futile but is nevertheless necessary so that others are satisfied that an appropriate degree of effort has been expended. "I'll wave a dead chicken over the source code, but I really think we've run into an OS bug."
wirehead n. [prob. from SF slang for an electrical-brain stimulation addict] 1. A hardware hacker, especially one who concentrates on communications hardware. 2. An expert in local area networks. A wirehead can be a network software wizard too, but will always have the ability to deal with network hardware, down to the
smallest component. Wireheads are known for their ability to lash up an Ethernet terminator from spare resistors, for example.
zipperhead n. A person with a closed mind.