Tag Archives: words

What’s e-new? Technology terminology

Of bits, nerds and cookies

Computing has added many words to our vernacular, as well as bending the meanings of others and repurposing them. This article explores the roots of some common terms we take for granted or might have been bemused by.

Acronyms, abbreviations and portmanteaus

Computer terminology loves acronyms, abbreviations and portmanteaus for their ability to create a simpler term from something more long-winded. Your computer is bristling with these – disks are connected by USB (Universal Serial Bus) or SATA (Serial Advanced Technology Attachment); data is copied into RAM (random-access memory); the images reach your monitor via an HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) connector, and data is sent around in bits (binary digits).

Many acronyms and abbreviations come from people’s names. For example the RSA algorithm, which is at the heart of most security on the internet, is named after its authors: Rivest, Shamir and Adleman. Meanwhile the Linux operating system takes its name from its original author, Linus Torvalds, who wrote it as a version of Unix.

Technology has often relied on abbreviations for practical reasons. In the early days of text messages, abbreviations were essential to fit a short message length with limited typing capability. Early computing systems used modems to connect to the internet, and transmission speeds were slow (remember the fun of waiting for an image to download with a modem?), so abbreviations slimmed down messages. This has carried over into social media today. One example pertinent to editors is TL;DR, which means ‘too long; don’t read’. Perhaps we should reclaim this as NAE – needs an editor.

Inventions

Some words are complete inventions. For some reason, customer support seems to provide a rich seam of these. Maybe this says something about the job? Two examples are PEBKAC (problem exists between chair and keyboard) and the error code Id10t (I’ll leave you to figure that one out for yourself). Terms for the user seem to be a common theme – perhaps this confirms the stereotype of computer people not always being people people! My favourite has to be ‘wetware’ or ‘liveware’, which interfaces more or less neatly with the hardware and software.

Repurposing

Repurposing or flexing the meaning of language has always happened, and the terminology of technology is no different. Many of the most common terms have come to us via this route.

One good example is the term ‘surf’, as in ‘surfing the internet’. One of the first uses in the computing context was in 1992. Before that the term for the practice of riding on boards on waves can potentially be traced back to 15th-century Hawaii. In the 20th century surfing became more popular in the US, especially in 1960s California. It seems to be around the 1980s that some new uses started to appear – ‘van surfing’ (dancing on a van roof); ‘train surfing’ (riding on the roof of a train) and then ‘channel surfing’ (hopping from channel to channel using a TV remote control). I suspect it was a short hop for Silicon Valley to borrow and adopt the term from there.

Your average computer geek’s (originally meaning ‘fool’ or ‘freak’ in Middle Low German, but has become a slang term for a slightly obsessive enthusiast) reading matter often draws inspiration from some odd sources. Nerd, another term for the stereotypical slightly obsessive computer person, appears to come from the Dr. Seuss book If I Ran the Zoo. Cookie, a term for a small packet of information passed between a web browser and web server, came from ‘magic cookies’ used by programmers, which in turn has its roots in fortune cookies, as it is a small container for information.

Often history has had a hand in the repurposing of words. Patch is a good example of this. The term is now used to describe a series of changes to computer code to fix problems or improve the code. If you look at the update history on your computer, you can often see references to patches. This comes from the time when paper tapes or punched cards were used to put information into computers. When you needed to change a program, you had to cut out part of the tape and patch in a new bit. Meanwhile ‘bug’, used to describe an error in computer code, is often wrongly attributed to Second World War computing pioneer Grace Hopper, who tracked down a problem to a moth caught in one of the computer’s relays (a sort of mechanical switch). She taped it into the logbook for the computer with the word ‘bug!’ written next to it. However there are earlier records of bug being used to describe defects in mechanical systems as far back as the 1870s, and Thomas Edison certainly used the term in his notes.

Problems

Some computing terminology has, like any language, acquired problematic terms. Recently I worked on a computing book that referred heavily to the ‘master–slave system’. This term refers to a computing system (or part of one) where one piece of equipment or component has a controlling (master) function. The term is decades old, and a recent article in Wired found that in 1976 67,000 US patents used it. Unfortunately, this means it is deeply embedded in many technologies, despite being rooted in unacceptable practices and discriminatory language.

In the book I worked on this led to a lot of discussion, as the term is so well understood that really it needs an industry-wide agreement on what to use instead. Fortunately the company whose technology the book was about was happy to implement its own approach, using ‘leader’ and ‘follower’ instead.

The issue raises a lot of questions within the industry, highlighting yet another area in society that suffers from a lack of diversity. Wired’s article on this, ‘Tech Confronts Its Use of the Labels “Master” and “Slave”’, is an interesting insight into why changes like this take so long.

As you can see, like any new innovation, technology has adopted, stolen, repurposed and occasionally mangled existing language in order to describe itself. And these new words have then been incorporated into more general English usage, often with further repurposing.

About Andy Coulson

Andy Coulson is a reformed engineer and primary teacher, and a Professional Member of CIEP. He is a copyeditor and proofreader specialising In STEM subjects and odd formats like LaTeX.

 

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

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Photo credits: cookies by Jason Jarrach; surfer by Jeremy Bishop, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Not working with words

By Liz Jones

An editor attempting to describe their job to a non-editor will often talk about ‘working with words’. This is essentially what we do: we take a client’s raw text, and we make it fit for purpose. But working with words is not all that an editor does. This post looks at some tasks editors might do as part of an editing job, as well as separate but related roles.

Non-textual editorial tasks

There are many things an editor might do in the course of a typical editing job that have nothing at all to do with words.

Checking illustrations, photos and other figures

Many of the things we work on involve pictures and diagrams, whether we’re editing books, websites, marketing materials or annual reports. Sometimes we’ll be specifically briefed to check the figures in a document, especially if they do contain text, but often this expectation will be implicit, and it’s down to the common sense of the editor to make sure that if the text mentions five green apples, the accompanying image doesn’t show three red tomatoes. It’s common for photos to appear with a wrong caption, or for annotations to be misplaced.

It’s also sensible to check that photos haven’t been flipped – which might be fine, but not if they depict something that includes lettering, such as a shop sign, or people carrying out activities that have a specific orientation, like driving cars. Other things editors need to be alert to are items that look out of place or even inappropriate – like red telephone boxes in a publication with a global audience, or people drinking alcohol or smoking in a book for children.

Checking numbers and dates

Many editors say they love words but hate numbers – but still it’s necessary to engage with numbers in all forms, in most of the work that we do. Folios need checking for a start, and cross-references. The degree of elision in number and date ranges must be consistent, and this will often be specified in a house style. Many numbers that we encounter need sense-checking, too. For example, would it be feasible to describe a 1,500km car journey as having taken four hours? Could that historical person possibly have died before they were born? And in certain types of work, such as medical editing, numerically expressed quantities are literally a matter of life and death.

Checking typographical details

Meanwhile, being able to spot a rogue italic comma is not a matter of life and death, but it is arguably still important in its way. And the difference between a hyphen and an en dash may seem trivial to some, but a document that has all its typographical details correct will somehow seem more finished, more credible, than one that has been carelessly formatted – even if the reader can’t quite put their finger on why. Typographic details help to signpost the reader – often unconsciously – and when correct they all add up to a seamless reading experience, enabling the message to be imparted with minimum fuss and maximum accuracy.

Checking layout features

An important part of editing – and proofreading in particular – is ensuring that the layout of a piece of text, along with any accompanying images and graphics, makes sense. You’ll need to develop an eye for ‘page furniture’, whether you’re working in print or online: running heads, menus, pull quotes, breadcrumbs … Often different elements within a larger document will work together and interlink, and each will have a particular meaning, which may be more intuitive than explicit to the reader – but as the editor you will need to understand the rationale behind such design decisions, to be able to assess whether all layout features are present and correct.

Bear in mind, too, that it’s easy when editing to be great at spotting the tiny textual details, and then overlook a typo in a title ten times the size of the rest of the text. Or not to notice that a box or a panel is the wrong colour for its function, or that an entire section of a book is labelled wrongly. One of the hallmarks of an outstanding editor is the ability to step back and see the bigger picture as well as focusing on the tiny details.

Related roles

Some editors take on roles that are related to editorial work and may even be combined with it, but use a different set of skills.

Permissions

Many of the documents editors work on include images or text that come from somewhere else. Sometimes they can be used with a simple acknowledgement, without asking for permission from the rights holder. But depending on the context, and the amount of material being reproduced, often it will be necessary to seek permission. An editor might be asked to handle this aspect of a project alongside their editorial work, or it could be subcontracted as a discrete job. Either way, it’s a useful skill for an editor to be able to offer, and the CIEP now runs a course on copyright for editorial professionals.

Picture research

Sometimes, editors go beyond just looking at pictures, and help to choose them. Picture research can be a really interesting facet to our work. Just as when you’re checking images that have already been placed, you’ll need to keep an eye out for details that fit with the text that needs to be illustrated. Consider the audience, and ensure that any picture you use works as hard as possible to support or augment the text, to ensure maximum value of paid-for images. Some images are free, or may be used freely with a credit (see for example Unsplash or Pixabay). Others must be paid for, and the cost per picture will depend on the size of the image and the type and reach of the publication.

Project management

Many freelance editors are employed to manage editorial projects. This can involve setting and monitoring budgets and schedules, as well as commissioning contributors such as authors and illustrators, and freelancers like designers, editors and indexers. Attention to textual detail is still important, but at this level of work you’ll need to be able to cope with tight schedules and increased responsibility, as well as keeping a range of people updated on progress at all stages of the project. You’ll also need to assess the work of others and provide feedback where necessary. The CIEP offers a course in editorial project management, and it also publishes a guide to this subject if you want to find out more.

 Liz Jones has been an editor since 1998, and has worked on thousands of projects, involving millions of words and a whole host of other variables. She specialises in highly illustrated non-fiction for a range of clients, and also works as a commissioning editor on the CIEP information team.

 


Photo credits: open book – Blair Fraser; letters – Octavian Dan, both on Unsplash.

Proofread by Victoria Hunt, Intermediate Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Excellence


Susie Dent's Wonderful Words

English revels in the bad, sad, seamy side of life – any slang thesaurus, for example, will provide far more words for misery and failure than for happiness and success. Which means synonyms for ‘excellence’, as in the title of the SfEP’s newsletter Editorial Excellence, should be particularly cherished.

The Oxford English Dictionary provides a number of historical superlatives well worth resurrecting. We’ve sadly lost, for example, ‘lollapalooza’, a gem from the US for anything outstanding in its field. It sits alongside the equally expressive ‘humdinger’, another US term for something so good it positively zings.

Something may be such hot stuff it’s ‘mustard’, a 19th-century term of approbation implying piquancy and zest, best known in the expression ‘cut the mustard’ (‘cut’ here works in the same way as ‘she cuts a fine figure’).

Close up of yellow mustard flowers, with a yellow field of mustard flowers behindA person of brilliant attainments, meanwhile, might be a ‘diamond’ – a glittering example in their field. Or they may be ‘peachy’, a simple play on something sweet and juicy. Their brilliance might even have once led to the epithet ‘carbuncle’, rarely associated with positivity these days but originally described as a precious stone (rather than a swelling) of blazing, fiery red.

More obviously wonderful is a ‘corker’ – something so fizzy it pops – and a ‘ripsnorter’ – anything remarkable in terms of size, vigour or appearance. Alternatively, you might describe something first-rate as a ‘spanker’, ‘tip-topper’, ‘phoenicle’ (a little phoenix), ‘bobby-dazzler’, ‘beaut’, ‘pippin’, ‘bosker’ or ‘killer-diller’. Or possibly a ‘screamer’, too, once another name for the exclamation mark. All of which are ‘bonzer’, a classic Australian adjective that’s an alteration of ‘bonanza’ and comes ultimately from the Spanish for ‘fair weather’.

Finally, let’s not forget the fanciful phrases we’ve come to love for any acme of excellence or pinnacle of success. Joining the ‘bee’s knees’, back in the 1920s, were the ‘kipper’s knickers’, the ‘caterpillar’s kimono’, and the ‘elephant’s adenoids’. These, of course, were born out of our love of fanciful word play, but there is another favourite in the list that once enjoyed a very different life before joining the lexicon of distinction. ‘The dog’s bollocks’ was first recorded among printers, who used it to refer to the typographical colon-dash :-, thanks to its shape.

Excellence: something to strive for, if not always easy to achieve. At least we’ll have plenty of ways to describe it once we get there.

Susie Dent, honorary vice-president of the Society for Editors and ProofreadersWonderful Words is a regular feature by Susie Dent, honorary vice-president of the SfEP. Susie is a writer and broadcaster on language. She is perhaps best known as the resident word expert on C4’s Countdown.

 

 

Proofread by Joanne Heath, Entry-Level Member.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

The internet and the democratisation of English – Part 3: Go home, spelling reform, you’re not needed here.

Sue Littleford has written a series of four blog posts exploring how the internet has contributed to the democratisation of the English language. Here is part three:

World Dictionary In part one, I wrote about mob rule in English, and how the internet has delivered the largest mob ever. In part two, I talked about coping with changing norms of language. One of those changing norms is surely spelling.

David Crystal OBE, in his lecture to the 2013 conference, spoke of how he has tracked the dropping of the h from rhubarb over the last few years by simply googling the word from time to time. Who needs the h, anyway? Rubarb sounds just the same without it. Why not agree it’s time it went and update the dictionaries? Wouldn’t that be nice and neat and logical?

Ah, yes, spelling reform. I’m agin it. In detail-less brevity, English spelling shows its breeding. It doesn’t reflect how some words sound now. It doesn’t reflect, necessarily, etymology. Some of our words were taken out to a dark alley and given a wedgie by language bullies who were afraid that good old English was simply not good enough (wedging the b into debt, the p into receipt, the s into island), some of them tripped over their own feet and had a nasty accident (smooshing an h into ghost, for example) and some words were mugged for political purposes (Nathaniel Webster springs to mind). It’s all a dreadful mess, spelling isn’t logical, it’s hard to learn and Someone Ought to Sort It Out. Well, again, no. There’s no Someone to do it. There are millions of someones. (See what I did there? We’re back at the internet.)

I suspect that, quite possibly in my lifetime, there will be natural and inevitable spelling reform based on the weight of opinion on what works best for one speaker of English to communicate with another, regardless of their backgrounds. Globalism demands it. Changing spelling wholesale is contrary to the way language actually works. And if you don’t believe that, count up how many Esperanto speakers you know, or writers of Shavian. Language grows – or, rather, is grown by its users – to meet demand. What starts as wordplay, or slang, or code becomes widespread; those words that are found useful become embedded, at least for a while. Those words that aren’t are dropped. Words come into fashion, go out again, maybe they come back, maybe they don’t. It is usefulness that drives these effects.

Spelling reform will happen, as it has happened constantly since we started spelling, but not as a programme imposed from above, by some ineffable body outside language telling us how things are going to be from now on. Yes, we must be taught how to use our language with facility, we need to learn the norms for spelling, punctuation and grammar that apply to our time; we need to learn about register, about appropriateness, so that the English we use in our school essays and job applications will be different from the English used informally. This isn’t new. What is new is the ease with which so many people of so many points of view can debate, declare, deride uses to such a huge audience. Some memes go viral, others don’t. Some memes have longevity, some burn out quickly after only sporadic interest. Just as general suffrage gives votes to people you don’t agree with, and to people you suspect shouldn’t be trusted with something as important as choosing the government of the country, the internet allows people less educated than me and people more educated than me, on a spectrum that runs from crackpot through people who think just like me and onto a whole other kind of crackpot to use English and to publish constantly.

Consider, though, the impact of spelling reform if it happens any other way. There have been so many schemes, mostly criticising the fact that words don’t look how they sound. So – you’re going to devise a spelling scheme and have it adopted. Upon whose accent do you base spelling? Received Pronunciation? Brum? Scouse? Welsh? Highland Scots? Belfast? Estuary? Then it already doesn’t look like it sounds to anyone with a different accent, or who speaks a dialect. What do you do about homophones? Homonyms? Will you sort out the mess of contronyms, too? But let’s gloss over that and speed on.

A new English spelling system is introduced. Time passes. Not much time – ten or twenty years is more than enough. The literature of the last four hundred years or so is now unreadable to the younger generations who only know the New English. A common enough problem now – Shakespeare is troublesome for many, Chaucer for most. Given the exponential growth of publishing since their day, though, it’s a vastly bigger problem. But it’s not the biggest problem. That is that our young people are cut off from the English of the rest of the globe. A few basic words will survive the revamp, of course: bat, dog, bawl, idiot.

So do we cut off our kids from our culture? Or do we transcribe and republish everything? Or just bits of it? (Which bits? Is the rest of our literature, our history, kept for the comparative handful who learn the Oldies English as a separate, elite, subject?) And what about the internet? The mass of material so huge it’s impossible to imagine?

The difficulty with spelling evolution now, of course, is dictionaries. We used to spell how we spoke, so we all spelled differently. Then came the printed word, which brought about a bit more standardisation, then the spellers, then the dictionaries. How can spelling move away from the monolith of the dictionary? Well, it can and it does and the dictionaries play catch-up. I sometimes amuse myself by checking a spelling on Googlefight before going to the dictionary. The people are speaking, and they’re not all speaking dictionary.

Sue Littleford

Sue Littleford was a career civil servant before being forcibly outsourced. That was such fun she changed tack altogether and has now been a freelance copy-editor for seven years, working mostly on postgraduate textbooks plus the occasional horseracing thriller. She is on Facebook and Twitter.

Proofread by Patric Toms.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.