Down to Navigation Controls

Talk Nerdy to Me:
Techno-Culture Slang

Gareth Branwyn

Modern (and pre-modern) language was based on the model of absolute right or wrong and a tight coupling of the name with the thing named. Dictionary committees and networks of academics joined to combat the invasion of the lexicographically incorrect. Words had to pay their dues, wait around 'til they were allowed to take their places in the great Book of the Word. The balancing of conservatism versus flexibility, necessary to any functioning ecosystem, was unquestionably tipped towards conservation.

By comparison, language in our postmodern world is fast, funky, novel, and experimental. The pendulum has swung wide in the opposite direction. And isn't it grand!

For anyone who likes to have slippery, elastic fun with language, this is a time for celebration. Every subculture, youth gang, corporate enclave, and leisure/sport society has its own cool lingo. And all these separate dialects have leaky borders, flowing into one another.
While this could ultimately turn out to be as boring (and limiting) as the lexical imperialism of the past, there's plenty of time for fun and games. Here in the panic interzone between the language of the past and the languages of the future, free license reigns.

For a radiant moment, everything is permitted.

Computer and techno-culture is becoming a significant force in our society. The sophistication of micro-technologies makes it fun and empowering for people to get personal with their tech. Out of their desire to name totally new experiences and modes of operation, new language is emerging.

Several recent books from MIT Press examine different facets of techno-culture language. Technobabble by John A. Barry takes a rather stuffed-shirt approach to our culture's romance with techno-speak. This book focuses on the misuse of technical jargon and slang by technology sales and marketing people, journalists, and the culture at large. While many of Barry's observations and criticisms are valid, he almost ignores the richness and cleverness of techno-lingo when it is used properly.

The New Hacker's Dictionary, edited by Eric Raymond, could be your usage manual. 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 useful guidebook to very much unofficial technical terms and street tech slang, but is also a de facto ethnography of the early years of the hacker culture. Just listen to this:

angry fruit salad n. A bad visual interface that uses too many colors.

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 whose existence has been deduced from the observation that unused programs or features will often stop working after sufficient time has passed, even though in the interim nothing has changed. The theory posits that bits decay randomly, 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 as droid.

flame war n. An acrimonious dispute conducted by flamers who are flaming one another with flamage, especially when staged on a public electronic forum such as USENET.

fuggly adj. Emphatic form of uglyfunky + ugly. Unusually for hacker slang, this may actually derive from 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 broadcast to every machine in the universe. The typical case of this is an IP datagram whose destination IP address is []. 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 n. [from Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle in quantum physics] 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. Rare. 2. [Cambridge] Vermin. Waiter, there's some liveware in my saladÉ

lunatic fringe n. Customers who can be relied upon to accept your release 1.0 versions of software.

mandelbug n. [from the Mandelbrot set] A bug whose underlying causes are so complex and obscure as to make its behavior appear chaotic or even totally non-deterministic.

marketroid n. [alt. marketing slime, marketing droid, marketeer] 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 by bug-for-bug compatibility with mess-dos [MS-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, making it appear that the mouse pointer has left a trail of scat.

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 and seem to share characteristic hacker tropisms for science fiction, music and Asian food.

nyetwork n. [from Russian nyet = no] A network, when it is acting flaky or is down.

pain in the net n. A flamer.

sagan n. [from Carl Sagan's TV series Cosmos; think billions and billions] A large quantity of anything. The U.S. spends sagans on bombs and welfarehard 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. It is installed only on a 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 D and K of a QWERTY keyboard).

troglodyte mode n. Programming with the lights turned off, sunglasses on, and the terminal inverted (white on black) 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 over crashed software or hardware which one believes to be futile but is nonetheless obligatory so that others may be 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 may 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.



Graphic: Mark Frauenfelder, bOING bOING

Navigation Controls

© 1998 The Computer Lab
Gareth Branwyn -

Go to Street Tech, Gar & Pete's Tech Review Site.