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Defining New Terms: Watch the Traffic!

This was originally posted on the Philadelphia Stories Weblog



a busy (and deadly) philly intersection

I blog about technology and psychology, and occasionally about the writing life. Sometimes the worlds of Internet culture, behavior and language meet. When it does, it ain’t pretty. Recently, a “comment war” started on my blog at that intersection. It was an accident waiting to happen; Imagine Cottman and The Boulevard with no stoplights.

The Internet, the World Wide Web, mobile phones, etc. all require new terms. Naturally, technology and social networking terms come up in my writing often. Neologisms are the red-headed stepchild pioneers of language, pushing boundaries of usage, staking claims on new concepts, and gaining the fascination and at times the hatred of the more traditional writer and speaker. This is my area of expertise. I early-adopt technology neologisms before your text-happy teen has typed them. By the time you’ve seen them, I’ve found a way to abbreviate or render the terms obsolete. After all, this is my job. I’m a techie geek: I’ve held jobs as a systems administrator, a web master, and a beta tester for new applications. I’ve been online since 1988. I now write for online and offline publications about how technology influences our lives.

As writers, we all keep our eyes on the language. We detect its changes, we embrace its nuances. I see tech terms come and go. Some terms stay exclusively in the developer community (“hacker” was an esteemed label for them). Some terms exist for specific applications, (e.g. “friend” as a verb in Facebook, “Tweet” as a noun and a verb for Twitter). Some terms so truly capture a cultural concept that both the concept and the term leak into the mainstream (read: “offline” if you’re over 35). “Meme” is one of those words. I’m here to warn you: Define it at your own risk.

The comment war on my blog began when a post of mine went a bit viral. As of this writing, the post has over 20,000 views. In the article, I outline how a popular Facebook phenomenon called “100 Books” is based on urban legend and not truth. The meme states that the BBC claimed people have read, on average, only 6 books of the best 100 books in all of Literaturedom. It turns out that the BBC never made any such claim, and the list’s origin is quite suspect at best.

I used the phrase “a chain-letter like game” to quickly define the word meme (pronounced meem, rhymes with dream) for my readers. Commentors began to take issue with my definition. Arguments ensued, mostly because I believe in a descriptivist approach to language, and some picky end-users of English are sticklers for the “law”. As a descriptivist, I don’t agree with the idea that there exists a “Proper English” to which we are all inescapably bound. Basic grammar exists so we can communicate with the least amount of ambiguity, but even basic grammar changes over time. The end-users I prickled are people under the (false) impression that words have perhaps one or two definitions, and that using the words in any way divergent from those definitions is unacceptable. Even the people at Google hate it when people use “google” as a verb to mean “search the Internet.” (I would think they’d be pleased as punch, like “Kleenex” “Aspirin” and “Band-Aid” are to cover their categories, but to each quirky company its own). I don’t feel like there is much room for the prescriptivist approach in tech or internet culture neologisms. We just have to use the terms, throw them out into the bits and bytes traffic of the Internet, and see what survives. The Internet culture moves too fast to do otherwise.

I won’t outline the details of the comment war; you can go witness that car wreck for yourself (links at end of post). I would just rather bring your attention around to your own struggles with words, or rather, your struggles as writers to get people to see your vision when they read your work. I know I’m tempting fate when I try to diagonally cross the intersection of Internet culture, end-users, language and theory, but when it comes to the information superhighway, I don’t wait for the light. If I see an opening, I take it. I run like the Dickens. Sometimes I reach the other side. Sometimes I’m smushed like an old lady dressed in black at 2 a.m.on a Friday night. When the Word Police leave me for dead, maybe you, my fellow writers, can come and scrape me up, dust me off, and send me on my way to dodge the traffic once more.

Let me know of your own run-ins and fender benders in the world of writing in the comments. I’ll friend you on Facebook if you do, I promise.

-Christine Cavalier

100 Books Meme on Facebook

Meme Definition from Merriam-Webster

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Pippi 29 December 2010, 7:57 pm

    People do get way too uptight over what they call proper grammar and spelling. But what’s really important is the fact you are right. Memes are chain letters. http://chainletters.pbworks.com and that bogus book meme was also trounced on the Netizen at http://netizen.posterous.com along with others like it.

  • David Agnew 2 January 2011, 10:49 pm

    Hi Christine, Love the discussion. Think I’m in your camp. Reminds me of the Darwinist vs Creationist debate. Got cornered one night with that one at one of my neighbors. …but I digress. I think that as we evolve as beings so does our language. Being a native of Australia I find the the evolution of our idiom vs the variants to be found through out America a constant source of amusement. Betty Windsor must NOT be amused! Join me on FB as I am trying to start a Philly city guide and group purchasing site “Lime&Tonic” http://www.facebook.com/pages/LimeTonic-Philadelphia/161215147245161