Great technological innovations change the culture, and that in turn changes the language.
This almost always happens imperceptibly and from the ground up. Some small group or industry will begin creating new words to deal with new experiences, and those words will circulate within that crowd for months, even years. Then, as that industry takes off and bursts into the public eye, its argot goes with it. Suddenly, a word you overheard just last week for the first time is showing up everywhere: on television, at cocktail parties, in the press. Cool people use it knowingly, books are written about it, consultants appear to make sure you have it, and courses are taught in it at universities.
And then, just as suddenly, it is gone. Keep it in your vocabulary for a week too long and people look at you like you're some retro-philistine, or, at best, an amusing anachronism -- like the guy who still said "23-skidoo" in 1950, or "groovy" in 1985. Sometimes, the word or phrase will reappear years later in an adulterated or ironic form -- as with the regular, bi-generational appearance of the term "cool," which has meant something entirely different, yet always the same, each time it's returned to general use.
In tech, words are often created in a manner that matches the personalities of engineers. Thus the much-remarked conversion of verbs into nouns and vice versa (input, download, link, etc.), grafting ("blog" from web log), and mech-anthropomorphism ("I had him do a core dump on everything he knew"), and transfer ("hacker" from amateur golfer, to impostor, to illegal phone pirate to software intruder to Internet vandal). Techno-speak is particularly rich with neologisms because it is the fastest-changing industry there is. Simply put, it needs new words all the time. One can assume that was true for early radio 80 years ago, and will be true for bioengineering and nanotech 20 years from now.
The great discoverers, creators and disseminators of new words are, of course, kids. There are a number of reasons for this, I think: They are out there on the cutting edge of social experimentation, they are obsessed with new technologies, they don't always hear traditional words properly or confuse their definitions (call it the Norm Crosby effect), and they often don't want adults to understand what they are talking about.
No doubt this has always been the case. Roman parents must have shaken their heads when their teenaged sons and daughters threw out some new slang word or other after dinner in the vomitorium. But I think this must be some kind of Golden Age for new words. After all, in the life of today's college students, we have seen the personal computer revolution, the rise of video games, the Internet, and the global consumer electronics market.
Any one of those would have added hundreds of new words to the language, together, they have created thousands. Some have already come and gone, others may stick around for the rest of our lives -- reappearing on our grandchildren's tongues in some transformed, or even reversed, definition.
Right now, the greatest sources of innovation in the language appear to be AOL Instant Messaging, MySpace.com, and the various MySpace-type online community clones popping up everywhere. And the two primary forces driving the creation of these terms are, simply, exclusivity and speed -- that is, kids want to be able to convey the most information possible in the shortest number of keystrokes, and they want to be able to show they are cooler than their correspondents.
So, here's a list (compiled with the help of my 14-year-old son, Tad, the Pop Culture Guru) of some terms and phrases currently in use on the Web (and elsewhere). A few of the older ones (that is, ones that are more than 24 months old) you may know -- like the variations of LOL -- but others I'm sure will surprise you.
Print out the list, don't let anyone know, and you will enjoy astonishing insight into your teenager's mind -- at least until the next technology and its attendant terms come along.
lol -- Laugh out Loud. Almost archaic now, but surprisingly enduring on everything from MySpace to FreeRepublic to the blogosphere. It and its variants (roflol -- rolling on floor, laughing out loud; and roflmao -- rolling on floor, laughing my a-- off) seem to perfectly fill a specific need, and may well last generations.
noob -- The ultimate Internet diss, derived from newbie or new.
nub -- A slightly evolved noob. Not a completely risible neophyte.
owned -- To be completely humiliated or taken down. An interesting variant, obviously the result of bad typing, but now in common use, is pwned. The great thing about pwned is that it has no verbal form, but is purely an IM creation.
:)-- A heart that says not really "I love you," but weirdly, "I heart you." One of the creations of the original e-mail era (like :) and :( that either turned into computer icons like ? or just disappeared from overuse) :) continues to live on.
hxc -- Hardcore. One IM technique is to show that a compound word is an abbreviation by using a linking symbol. In this case, the x comes from both adult films and extreme sports. Thus, this term can also mean "extreme hardcore."
leet -- An old hacker term for "elite." Now in general use for anything or anyone considered exclusive, superior or select.
h4xxOrz -- The word "hacker" in IM speak, but typically used as a verb for taking someone down, defeating them in some way: "I'll h4xxOrz your a--."
azn -- Asian. One of a number of abbreviations for racial categories, usually self-defined, but also as a term of derogation.
-zorz -- A suffix that amplifies the meaning of the word to which it is attached. For example, "lolzorz" means to laugh your head off.
emo -- Emotional. Originally a type of music featuring romantic-to-the-point-of-suicidal lyrics, a fey singing manner, and guitar pop (example: Dashboard Confessional). Has evolved in one variant into "Screamo" (example: UnderOath), which is much the same music with darker chords and larynx-shredding choruses. Emo is also a lifestyle, featuring long, straight hair that hangs over one eye, tight pants on boys, and a look of perpetual existential despair. The classic emo MySpace photograph is self-taken in a mirror showing only the sad profile of boy or girl looking wistfully away. Emos are the "sensitive poets" of this generation.
scene -- Where one segment of emo is going, toward Hardcore/Fashioncore kids who are obsessed with the latest clothing styles, flamboyant gestures, and narcissism disguised as self-loathing. Classic scene MySpace photos show kids making "Oh my!" hand-to-the-mouth looks while coyly averting their eyes.
badonkadonk, humps, junk in the trunk, etc. -- Buttocks. Hip-hop terms that have crept onto the Internet, mostly from music (as in the recent Black-Eyed Peas hit "My Humps").
beezy -- Slightly nicer than a b--h.
sex -- Sexy, attractive.
Here, created by my son, is a MySpace conversation. The trick is to not read it, but, to pronounce it aloud in your head, making accommodations for bad typing, misspellings, and one-letter abbreviations. What you'll discover is that a whole new language is being created before your eyes.
XxMiTwIzDliFeXx - sup beezy?
xXxbRokenLullabYxXx - oh fosho! luv your sex hair! <3
XxMiTwIzDliFeXx - thnx, cut that sheet maslef.
xXxbRokenLullabYxXx - hXc. btw ur hEllA hawt x102491248012948
XxMiTwIzDliFeXx - lolzarz ,g2g mom is hellza yellin at me
xXxbRokenLullabYxXx - kk, ttyl then?
XxMiTwIzDliFeXx - yeyeye <3 <3 <3
xXxbRokenLullabYxXx - XxMiTwIzDliFeXx - rofl
That's it for now. When I have some more terms and definitions, I'll holla bakachya boi! <3
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michael S. Malone, once called the Boswell of Silicon Valley, is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury-News, as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is best-known as the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public-television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the ABCNEWS.com "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.