Let’s Get Physible!

New technology always breeds new words. So I wonder if this one will catch on.

One of the newest developments in technology is the 3D printer. This device does exactly what you would expect it to, namely it takes a data file and ‘prints’ the object out as a physical item. OK, you wouldn’t have expected to be able to ‘print’ a doll or a shoe in your own home five years ago, but that’s progress for you.

So far, there hasn’t been a catch-all name for objects that you can create in this way. Until now, that is.

The Pirate Bay, an infamous piracy and file-sharing website, has now started hosting suitable files on its website, and has created a new category for them. It has dubbed them ‘Physibles’.

Will this word stick? In some senses, it already has. The Pirate Bay announcement has picked up coverage that is beginning to extend beyond the technology blogs. All are using the word ‘physible’, albeit in inverted commas. So it may not be long before the punctuation disappears and physible become the standard word for these files.

Except. The Pirate Bay has long been unpopular with makers of films and music for facilitating the illegal downloading and sharing of material. Model makers such as Games Workshop are already angered by the physible development as it could harm sales of their models.

So will the technology world allow the Pirate Bay to take linguistic ownership of this burgeoning development, or will someone on the more legitimate side of the fence suggest an alternative? This is a technology in need of a name. The question is whether the Pirate Bay’s Physible will be allowed to prevail.

Goldlicks Planets: Why Science Needs Fairy Stories

I was recently sitting in the back of a taxi in Adelaide talking to the driver about whether life exists on other planets.

There were two things that struck me about the conversation. Firstly, I was in the back of a taxi in Adelaide discussing extra-terrestrial life. But secondly, it was the casual way that the driver referred to “Goldilocks” planets.

“Goldilocks” planets are those located in what scientists refer to as the habitable zone around a sun. Such planets can support life because their temperature is not too hot and not too cold. In fact, it is “just right”. And there was me thinking that a Goldilocks planet was one being roamed by small families of amiable bears with a healthy attitude to nutritious breakfasts.

Even though this term has been around for some years, it seems to me that it has only recently begun to be used more generally in conversation and news reporting. And yet, a couple of developments this week have led me to consider whether this term is enough, or whether we need to extend fairy tale terminology further in order to encompass the latest developments in the field of astronomy.

NASA announced this week that oceans had been discovered underneath the frozen surface of Europa, a moon of Jupiter. Europa is millions of miles away, far outside the Goldilocks zone. But what if life is present there? Scientists may then have to refer to life being possible in the “Snow Queen” zone as well.

Separately, it has also been revealed that the Goldilocks zone is larger than first thought. Scientists have suggested that the Goldilocks zone around some red dwarf stars may extend further because of the type of radiation that these stars emit, as it could melt ice and snow on planets a greater distance away than first suggested. So rather than a Goldilocks zone, we might want to start to refer to a “Snow White” zone instead. But to support this, I think we would also have to name the red dwarf star as well. “Sneezy” would be ideal, as it would suggest the projectile nature of its radiation waves.

I wonder as well whether we should extend the concept and accept that fairy tales offer us the perfect linguistic metaphor for discussing all scientific phenomena. Just imagine how much easier it would be to teach. For example, if scientists have developed a material that is robust to all manner of natural forces, following much trial and error, that could be a “Three Little Pigs” material, able to protect itself from a “Big Bad Wolf” force. If scientists are convinced they have not achieved the best result they could from an experiment and they need to wait for what is coming next, it could be termed “Billy Goats Gruff” research, with the boffin taking the role of the deluded troll. And when there is only one solution to a complex problem, scientists could be said to be searching for whatever fits the “glass slipper”.

It’s not just me who is mining this path. This week, there have been reports about the formation of the Gamburtsev mountains in Antarctica, with theories on how they came to be. It seems that they were covered with ice 34 million years ago and were then, quite literally, frozen in time. Or as it is being reported round the world, “Like Sleeping Beauty, they retained their eerie youthfulness.”

But scientists also need to be careful. Once again this week, the world has been reading about the Cern research facility in Switzerland, and the fact that for the second time, neutrinos seem to be travelling faster than the speed of light. The Cern researchers had better be right. If it turns out they are wrong after all, will anybody ever take them seriously again. Or will they come to be known as “scientists who cried wolf”.

The Unspeakable Awards: What is the Worst New Tech Word?

Technology is a rich source of new words, as Wordability has mentioned on more than one occasion. But it’s probably fair to say there are good technology words and bad technology words fighting for their place in the lexicon.

To mark their ever widening influence, Computeractive magazine has revealed the winner of its first “Unspeakable” award. The dubious distinction is bestowed upon the “most annoying or horrible” new word to enter dictionaries in the last 12 months, with the results decided by an online YouGov survey of 2,054 people.

Before I tell you the winner, I will say that I don’t think it is one I would have voted for. If pressed for a view, I find all the twee twitter words the most aggravating, governed as they are by the contention that you can put tw- at the front of anything and make it intelligible. I think that’s a load of old twosh.

Twitter words make three entries: Twittersphere, which means means the Twitter world at large and is ironically the only Twitter word I actually like; Tweetup, which is a meeting organised on Twitter and is much more representative of the kind of ghastly effect that the micro-blogging site has had on language; and Twitpic, which is a picture on Twitter and has ‘Twit’ front and centre, which seems about right.

But let’s hail the winner, which picked up 24% of the vote. The first recipient of the “Unspeakable” award is Sexting. Its victory probably owes much to popular news over the last 12 months. After all, there has never been such an era for the sending of explicit imagery via mobile phones in the whole of human history.

Paul Allen, the editor of Computeractive, believes in plain English, and his publication prides itself on its jargon-free advice. He worries that Techlish, a technlogy-laded version of English, is about to swamp our everyday language unless we are careful about it.

Wordability spoke to Mr Allen about the survey. He agreed the growth of technology inevitably meant a sprouting of new words, and added: “A lot have become very useful, they define a shift in human behaviour, such as Google as a verb.”

But he added: “People in marketing have spotted how these new words have become ways of getting coverage so they keep inventing them. Sexting is plain silly, a tabloid dream come true.”

Mr Allen also said that tech words have a way of bestowing a sense of exclusivity on the people who use them. “You may make other people feel a bit silly. It’s not intentional, but they can be exclusive words which are not inviting people in.”

Here’s the top 10. Take a look, and let me know what you think. Why don’t you leave a comment on what you think should also have been in the list:

1. Sexting: The sending of sexually explicit photographs or messages by mobile phone

2. Intexticated: Unable to concentrate while driving because of being distracted by texting.

3. Defriend: To remove someone from one’s list of friends on a social networking site.

4. Twittersphere: The collective noun for all postings/Tweets on Twitter.

5. Tweetup: A meeting or get-together that has been organized via Tweets on Twitter.

6. Hacktivist: Someone who hacks into computer data as a form of activism.

7. Clickjacking: Maliciously manipulating a web-user’s action by concealed hyperlinks.

8.= Twitpic: A picture posted as a Tweet on Twitter.

8.= Scareware: A malicious programme designed to trick users into buying unnecessary software such as fake antivirus protection.

8.= Dot-bomb: An Internet venture (dotcom) that has failed and/or gone bankrupt.

iLanguage: How Steve Jobs Changed English

It is rare for somebody to have a profound influence on the way we live our everyday lives, but Steve Jobs was just such a person.

My interest in technology is not of the flashy buttons and whizzy gadgets variety. I am far more taken by the fundamental ways that technological innovation has utterly transformed our lives, and in this respect, the products that Steve Jobs and Apple brought to market achieved exactly this.

But Wordability’s interest is inevitably in the usage of new words, and to that end, I have been pondering how much of a linguistic legacy the Apple co-founder will leave behind.

I think there is one, but it is not as obvious as might first appear. For example, it is a stretch to say that without him, a mac would still only be a rainproof coat and the only thing we would picture when talking about a mouse would be a fairly cute rodent.

As for personal music players, I don’t think that iPod has quite become generic in the way that Google has, as I discussed in a previous post. Users of differently branded MP3 players would be quite aghast to have them called iPods, even though it is used by many as the standard term.

It is also interesting that the phrase iPod generation, coined in 2005 to describe the difficulties faced by those under 35, is more of a play on iPod rather than a description of their musical listening habits. iPod here is an acronym for Insecure, Pressured, Over-Taxed and Debt-Ridden.

But the iPod does give us a clue as to where the Jobs influence is truly felt in newly coined words. In fact, if you just put a lower case ‘i’ in front of any word, it transforms it into an Apple inspired version of itself. If I said I was thinking of producing an iRadiator, an iRockingHorse and an iSunHat, you would instantly picture these items playing music, affording their users instant communication and giving easy access to games of Angry Birds. So he has certainly left us the ‘i’ prefix, and #iSad was a top trending topic on Twitter in tribute, to prove the point.

However, I think that Steve Jobs’ biggest contribution to language is outside the normal remit of Wordability and is more in the realm of what linguists call pragmatics, the study of all the other factors surrounding language which help us to understand it.

Possession of a smart phone means that you can now embellish your everyday conversation with pictures, videos and access to other information instantly, as you talk to people. Touching and swiping have become gestures in conversation every bit as normal as nodding and shaking your head. And access to all this material makes conversation multimedia – instead of trying to describe that picture to the person you are talking to, you just show it to them instead.

So it could be argued that the ubiquity of Apple devices has made language different by adding all manner of elements to it so it is not just verbal, and the way that we communicate with people in person is now different because of the sophisticated devices in our pocket. And that would mean that one of Steve Jobs’ legacies is a subtle but permanent shift in the way we talk.

To Facebook or Not To Facebook

One of the most common drivers of new words is technology. It is a subject to which Wordability will often return.

For my opening gambit though, I am going to spurn the obvious. Currently, I think the obvious is Twitter and the plethora of tweeps, twebinars and retweetings which it has spawned. Loath as I am to send you off somewhere else, the BBC recently published an admirable account of some of these developments, though please don’t think of following that link until you have finished reading this.

No, my current interest is technology words as verbs. Now this may not sound like a particularly enthralling avenue to go down, but come with me. Because it is actually fundamental for showing us which branches of technology have established themselves as the de facto standard. It is the linguistic rule by which we can see which brand has won.

If you think I am overstating this, think about the ubiquity of Hoover or Xerox. Everybody knows that these are brand names that have become the standard verbs to describe the act that they perform. When a brand name has triumphed to become the verb of choice, then it’s game over.

So where has the battle finished in the current technological world? I think Sky has been victorious in the world of home recording. ‘To Sky Plus’ now seems to have become the accepted phrase for recording television on any Sky Plus style box. Sky wins.

When it comes to altering images with a computer, we ‘Photoshop’ them, whatever software we have actually used. Go Adobe.

And when we search on the internet, we all know that these days we ‘Google’ for stuff, rather than search for it. In fact, you only have to look at what came before for a clue as to why Google was always going to win this battle. ‘I Yahooed myself’ conjures up an entirely different set of images altogether.

But Google could be about to become embroiled in a linguistic battle to come. It will be one which will really show us who’s boss.

There is much discussion online about whether Facebook can be used as a verb. A friend of mine commented on Facebook recently that he was watching a film while ‘Facebooking’, and then wondered whether it was really a verb.

Well, I think it is, but I think it currently has quite a specific meaning. ‘To Facebook’ is very much to use Facebook itself, to look at it, and to contact someone via Facebook. ‘I Facebooked that girl I chatted to on the bus last week’ makes sense, even if it is socially suspect.

But Facebook has not become a generic verb to describe all types of social networking, and this is where Google enters the fray. Google Plus is the company’s answer to Facebook, and the next few months will give us a clue as to whether it can halt the Zuckerberg express. And I think that linguistic usage will provide us with a clue as to how that battle is playing out.

Because it will only be when we use ‘Facebook’ or ‘Google Plus’ as a verb to describe any act of social networking that we will we truly know which technological monolith has come out on top.