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Tech speak
language evolves alongside technology

By Judy Grover / December 2005

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The end of the year is an occasion for reflection; a time of wrap-ups and reviews and "Best of" lists, including an annual literary parade of sorts: Dictionary publishers' picks for the "Word of the Year." As might be expected, high-tech terms tend to dominate and discussion centers on these selections as symbols of our cultural evolution.

To wit, the Oxford American English Dictionary this year awarded the honor to podcast while Webster's New World College Dictionary has chosen infosnacking. Tech terms such as these are finding their way into everyday conversations, television shows, and newspapers and, as such, are being awarded official positions in the general lexicon. Both of the above terms will be honored henceforth with their own dictionary entries.

"Language is a living, growing thing," says Peter Sokolowski, an editor with Merriam-Webster Inc. (M-W) whose /Collegiate Dictionary is America's best-selling hardcover. M-W distinguished itself this year through the absence of a single tech term listed with its own top ten. Sokolowski explains that M-W's annual list is not based on an editorial vote. It is based on users' anonymous hits to its online dictionary and thesaurus. "There is no lobbying for what one thinks the word ought to be." The word of the year "reflects usage and only usage," he says. "It's been a revelatory experience to be able to see what people are actually looking up. We could never know that before." M-W's number-one word of 2005, receiving the largest number of user requests—and by a wide margin, too—was integrity. Such a common word identified as the most searched entry is peculiar, and Sokolowski admits, "We're scratching our heads a little bit."

"We're not sure how to account for the increase in interest in this particular word, except that people do often look up the meanings of words that have special significance to current events and issues," said John M. Morse, M-W's president and publisher in a release. "Perhaps it's not too much of a stretch to think that recent political and social developments have made the word integrity particularly appropriate to issues that people are talking about."

Other terms in this year's top ten—filibuster, pandemic, levy—are clearly linked to current events as was 2004's word of the year, blog, which could be traced, Sokolowski says, "to the extraordinary explosion in the growth of tech terms." It's no matter that computer words didn't make M-W's list this year. According to Sokolowski it is these words that comprise "a huge part of what's new in the dictionary in the past decade."

New tech terms that have either been recently added to the dictionary or are slated for the future, include blog, WiFi, cybrarian, defrag, extranet, cyber café, google (as a verb!), and possibly blogosphere, which has not yet made the cut. Sokolowski explains that Merriam-Webster has a new Open Dictionary to which users can submit their own fun tech terms (see sidebar). "These are words that are a certain reflection of the cutting edge," he says.

What about those long-forgotten words that have been rendered obsolete by a generation or more of non-use? Are they forced to make way when new words are added (roughly 100 each year)? M-W's New Collegiate Dictionary (which includes an average of 165,000 entries) goes under a full revision every decade which means that every single entry is reviewed. If a word is found to lack "evidence of use," it is officially retired. "Such is the case with tech terms that are superseded by new technologies," says Sokolowski, "such as those ancillary terms related to the storage and maintenance of microfiche…" The word microfiche itself survives (for now). "The words that are retired are very technical and specialized. They're not the words that generate angry letters questioning, 'What happened to that word?'"

Once retired, the words don't cease to exist, of course. According to Sokolowski M-W's database includes 16 million words, the largest body of evidence in the world. Editors scour a large number of sources every day, keeping their eyes open for new and interesting terms. Each occurrence is referenced in the database and one million of these "contexts" are added every year. Submersed in the UK's Times Literary Supplement, Sokolowski says he pays particular attention to American usage seeping into London as the world becomes a smaller place.


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