The Rapid Evolution of Digital Language

“App” was named Word of the Year for 2010 by the Linguistic Society of America at their national conference this month. “Nom” was the runner-up. Never heard the word “nom”? You’re not alone: swiftly-evolving digital language may be the curse of the web worker.

Language evolves, but the web has provided a hothouse for the overblown blossoming — and just as swift demise — of fad language, jargon and discipline-specific words. Last year’s Word of the Year, “Tweet”, and the Word of the Decade, “Google,” (s goog) were also technology-related. How do web workers keep up with the breakneck evolution of online language? And how do we avoid misusing words and sounding out-of-touch in a field where being connected is the most basic requirement?

The Linguistic Society of America’s naming of “app” as its word of the year points to the speed at which words and word usage evolves online. App —  an abbreviation, of course, for application — is a technology-specific word that, for a while, was heard all too often in the phrase, “There’s an app for that!” “Nom,” a word made popular by the Cookie Monster, has taken hold in the world of social networking — a world in which the Cookie Monster has quite the following.

The changing language of the digital space points to the evolution of the web and online culture, as much as to our growing technological vocabularies.

The Common Vernacular

Back in the 90’s, it was common to “surf the ‘Net”, to “ICQ” a friend, and to hang out on “bulletin boards”. Within a few years, we were talking about static websites as “brochureware” — with a negative inflection — and communicating in acronyms: IMHO, ROFL, and so on.

Today, better search facilities, and our improved ability to control our own online experiences, preclude most of us from having to “surf the ‘Net”. Similarly, changes in the way in which online properties are run has severely reduced the number of “webmasters” online. The declining popularity of these terms points to the changing way we use the Web as much as to simple word usage trends.

Similarly, the adoption and adaptation of concepts like “Web 2.0” puts their associated fad terms out of use almost as quickly as they come into the industry’s consciousness. The growth and persistence of digital brands impacts our language, too. I’ll still “Google it”, but I’ll no longer “ICQ” you the results of my search — I’ll more likely “IM” them.

Beyond the popular language of the Web lies discipline-specific terminology, or jargon. While this may stick around for longer, its evolution is still incredibly fast by comparison to the rest of our language.

Take “usability”, for example. Initially, “usability” was the buzzword, until awareness of “accessibility” became widespread. Around this time, “user testing” could usually be taken to mean physical testing with users in a room with a computer.

We’ve seen these areas unite and expand into the broader field of “user experience”, which includes the design focus that many readers of Jakob Nielsen’s AlertBox used to long for. Where once they were ends in themselves, usability and accessibility are seen today as two elements of the broader discipline of user experience, a term which has overtaken the other two in the conversations I’m hearing online. Oh, and “user testing”? These days, that could mean anything from in-house, on-site testing with actual users, to virtual testing carried out by an offshore agency you’ve never met.

Interestingly, it’s often the practical terms within an area or field that outlast the bigger-picture or trend terms for that field: talk of wireframes, use cases, information architecture, and so on persists. But to speak of “usability” or “accessibility” when you mean “user experience” immediately implies a lack of knowledge and expertise.

Staying Up-to-Date

Many web workers take the evolution of online language with a grain of salt, and few of us expect to be across all of the common buzzwords. That said, my web working friends seem to know — and use — more jargon than they realize.

It’s true that the majority of these words aren’t restricted to online usage: word themes that begin and grow online are inevitably carried into the offline world. We use them in general conversations, often with people who aren’t tech-savvy or web workers.

For most of us, staying up-to-date with the evolving online language is less about looking up words we don’t understand than it is listening to the conversation of others, reading widely and heavily, and avoiding using terms whose meanings we’re not sure of.

Most of us know the current language of our fields, and have a general, less-developed knowledge of those of related disciplines. Our knowledge of general web terms is usually commensurate with our degree of online submersion and socializing. And for most of us, that’s enough.

Image by stock.xchng user Brybs.

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