QWERTY Overtyped By KALQ

There have been many attempts over the years to redesign the traditional keyboard. Thus far, QWERTY has reigned supreme, and so a string of letters arranged for ease of typing has become the word by which the keyboard is known.

The latest challenger to this is designed with touch screens in mind and similarly takes its name from a string of letters in the arrangement, this time the opposite corner.

KALQ Keyboard

The KALQ keyboard is probably the only name that could have been chosen based on the arrangement, as frankly all the other lines produce unpronounceable gibberish, though I like the idea of the GTOJ keyboard challenging for typing supremacy. I wonder if the researchers made sure that there was at least one line which could be spoken to ensure their keyboard had a chance of being publicised.

Mind you, the combined brains of the University of St Andrews, the Max Planck Institute for Informatics in Germany and Montana Tech in the US aren’t entirely obsessed with simplicity. They described the old design as trapping people in “suboptimal text entry interfaces”. Well quite.

Another thing that has emerged from this story is the phrase ‘thumb typing’ which is being treated as something linguistically new by the media, a fair point since it doesn’t seem to feature in online dictionaries yet. It obviously means typing with your thumb.

As technology evolves, who knows whether this mode of typing will become the new default, and thumb typing will simply become known as typing in the future, with finger typing then being needed as the word for the old fashioned sort. And as new devices come on the market, who can say what parts of our body we might end up typing with. And that could open up a whole new chapter of neologisms.

Look Through The Eyes of Glass Explorers

I once did a temping job in an office which concentrated on building and maintenance projects. I always particularly enjoyed dealings with the Electrical Foreman or the Mechanical Foreman. This was nothing to do with their personalities or the nature of the work I had to do. It was simply that I liked their job titles, and imagined them as either built of metal or plugged in as they went about their days.

Google’s new term Glass Explorers has a similar sense. Surely these are people who are tearing through jungles or across ruined buildings while taking care not to shatter. If not that, then they must be people searching for the greatest glass ever made.

Of course, neither is true. Glass Explorers are the 8,000 intrepid souls selected by Google to test their new wearable computer, which is called Glass. If Glass become a success, then the term Glass Explorers will become established as a permanent new technology word, the pioneers at the start of a new type of computing.

From a language point of view, it’s a shame that some other initiatives announced by Google have turned out to be April Fool’s japes, rather than real innovations. It’s a shame that we will not really be able to hunt for buried treasure on Google Maps by using ‘Treasure Mode’, or that ‘Google Nose’ will not become a standard way of searching for smells.

Glass Explorers however are no joke, and as technology takes another step forward, so another array of new words is set to appear.

The Swiftkey Way To Learning New Words

The number of new words contributed to the English language by technology is well known. But how does a company which provides technology to help with language and communication cope with the ever-expanding tide of vocabulary?

Swiftkey in action

Swiftkey has garnered praise and awards for its predictive text app. Its nifty software allows users of Android devices to speed up their typing by anticipating what they are going to type and then suggesting it for them.

I wondered how the Swiftkey database keeps up to date, to ensure that it can offer users the newest words on the block. So I asked Dr Caroline Gasperin, who leads a team of eight language processing engineers responsible for most language-related tasks at the London-based company.

She explained that Swiftkey learns an individual’s linguistic habits, and that by extension this grows its global database as a result.

“Your SwiftKey will learn any word you teach it, you only have to type it once and it will be included in your personal language model on your device,” she said.

“Through the Personalisation feature – which allows you to sync it with your Gmail, Facebook and Twitter accounts – and through continuous use, SwiftKey learns the words you use and the contexts in which you use them so that its predictions and corrections are based on your own way of writing.”

This learning can then feed into the overall word database to help the word corpus grow. Caroline said: “We’ve started putting in place the infrastructure for learning new words from our user base.

“As users use the Personalisation feature of SwiftKey, we are able to collect statistics about the words they use and identify words that we did not know before. We are putting in place a semi-automatic process to identify which of those words could become part of a standard dictionary and consequently become part of our downloadable language modules.

“This process consists of observing the frequency of use of words over time: words which used to have few occurrences across our user base, but which start becoming more frequent over time, and which are mentioned by several of our users instead of by just one or a few, are considered as good candidates for being added to our dictionaries.

“It’s worth adding we take our users’ privacy extremely seriously and have policies in place to safeguard this. We do not process a user’s data personally.”

Dr Caroline Gasperin
Dr Caroline Gasperin

So has the way that new words are assimilated changed, and is the process quicker than before? Caroline said: “We look into how many different people have used an unknown word in order to consider it as a potential new word in the language instead of a personal word.

“We take our users’ privacy seriously, so we’ve developed ways to discover words in wide use instead of focusing on single users.

“We haven’t followed users’ language use for long enough to know whether new words are being adopted faster than before, but we are working on getting those statistics.”

I have long since believed that new words are being created and accepted into the language considerably quicker than before, with technology the principal driver behind that evolution. It would be interesting to revisit Swiftkey at some point soon to see whether those promised statistics back up that theory. And the company also gives us a very clear steer about how its core business has to adapt to the ever-changing delights of the English language.

Mobile Users Having A Smishing Time

You can always tell when a new word hasn’t caught on – two or three years after it is first coined, it still has inverted commas around it when hits the headlines.

So it is with Smishing, the mobile cousin of phishing. It is the practice of sending bogus text messages to people in order to con them and was actually coined in 2006 in a blog on the McAfee website. But six years later, it has still not shed its inverted commas or the sense that people are seeing it for the first time.

Smishing is currently in the news in America because of an outbreak of fake Wal-Mart related text messages. It has led to much coverage of a new type of cyber attack but all the articles confirm that despite its few years of linguistic existence, it is a term that none of us have ever heard of.

Which begs the question of why. Smishing is derived from SMS and Phishing, and simply conflates the two. Phishing is itself a conflation, though not an obvious one. It takes fishing and combines it the ph from phone phreaking, which is the art of cracking the phone network.

Despite its rather convoluted derivation, phishing works as a word. You can immediately understand it as it has the element of fishing for something until you get a catch, in this case a cyber one, and the ‘ph’ spelling makes it seem kind of techy, even if you have no idea why it is actually spelt like that.

But smishing? It doesn’t have the benefit of sounding like another word. It actually sounds pretty daft. And because of its slight ludicrousness, it is hard to imagine it being talked about with the same seriousness as its email ancestor.

So even though there is a growing problem of spam text messages landing on people’s mobiles around the world, I don’t expect to see Smishing finding its way into common vocabulary any time soon.

Chatterboxing is the New Way to Talk

The advent of Twitter has spawned many Twittish words, but the latest seems to be one of the more bizarre.

Second screens are one of the trendy subjects at the moment in the mobile phone and tablet worlds. This is the idea that while you are in front of the television, you have your second screen on your lap or in your hand and are merrily interacting with it while you watch.

One way that people interact is to chat to others on Twitter about the programme they are viewing, and this social interaction becomes as important to them as the programme itself. And what are they doing? They are chatterboxing.

It’s not clear to me how this word has come about. I think it is more than just taking the well-established word chatterbox and making it into a verb, because that implies excessive talking, and chatterboxing involves no talking at all. Instead, I suspect it could be a play on words, chatting while watching the box, an almost defiantly old-fashioned word to help with a new habit. But however it has come about, it is an activity that will stay and expand, and I suspect the word is here to stay.

Online dictionaries are not yielding definitions at the moment, though they’re soon likely to catch up. Having said that, there is a definition on the Urban Dictionary. It suggests that chatterboxing is “the act of talking shit”.

So it’s pretty accurate then.

Brogrammers Making Computing Cool

There is a cliched image of computer programmers. It involves words such as geek or nerd, and images of quiet and bespectacled individuals sitting in corners, headphones plugged in, reams of code spiralling down the screen in front of them.

But no more. It seems there is a new breed of computer whizz, cooler and with attitude. These coding experts can drink heavily and party with the best of them, but they still work hard. And they are not programmers. They are Brogrammers.

The word, bringing the “bro” greeting together with “programmer”, is now beginning to gain currency across the internet, and there is a burgeoning Facebook group with more than 22,000 members. But it is not universally popular, with others criticising the term and worrying that it will make a male-dominated profession even harder for women to break into. And they argue that it is a terrible word.

Is it terrible? Well it is funny, and I can see it catching on in a niche way. However, the accusation of it being sexist is entirely valid. It could end up growing as a kind of polarising term for different kinds of coders, rather than as the joke that it clearly is now. Nevertheless, I think it is here to stay, for a time at least.

But I am much more entertained by the linguistic possibilities that it suggests for the future. What if we could apply this subtle change to a number of other words? Just think, we could have:

  • Advancing in your career while partying – Bromotion
  • Sleeping with a really cool guy – Brocreation
  • Dietary supplements taken by heavy drinkers – Brobiotics

I’d better stop now. You’ll soon be needing Brotection from any more of this nonsense.

Nomophobia and the Fear of Language Failure

Two thirds of us live in fear of being without our mobile phones, a new survey has said. It seems that as a nation, we are suffering from nomophobia.

Yes, that really is nomophobia, derived from ‘no-mobile-phobia’ and meaning ‘the fear of being out of mobile phone contact’.

OK, many of us worry about losing our phones. I certainly do. I worry about putting it somewhere and not knowing where it is, or someone stealing it, or dropping it down the toilet (loomophobia?). But to attempt to give this a name that implies it is a mental condition, that you could get treatment for it, no, this seems a step too far.

You could be forgiven for thinking this is a brand new word, dreamt up in the last week by a PR agent desperate to get coverage for a story about a new mobile application that makes your phone grow legs and chase after you so you are never out of contact.

But no. It turns out that nomophobia is nearly four years old, and dates from a Post Office survey of 2008 about mobile phone usage. The word was coined at the time. But it is not in dictionaries, you will struggle to find an online meaning for it, and it is only being heard now because it has been reused in a fresh survey which pretty much rehashes what was said four years ago.

So what does this tell us from a language point of view? Broadly, a word will not catch on if it is not covering a semantic gap. The world has not been crying out for a word to describe fear of losing a mobile, it sounds like a gimmicky word created to support a story, and therefore it didn’t stick the first time. In addition, it’s not a very good word, because it is not immediately obvious what it means when you hear it. When I first heard the word, I thought it might be fear of small red-hatted creatures standing at the bottom of your garden.

I strongly suspect that nomophobia will disappear from consciousness as quickly as it reappeared this week, and may only resurface to feature in a list of the most annoying words of the year.

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.

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.

Text Neck and a Bowl of Guacamole

Wordability always enjoys seeing a new term sweeping across the internet. However, this is tempered when that term is, frankly, a bit silly.

Yes, technological advances have inevitably produced new ways of behaving and the possibility of new medical conditions. Yes, it is probably true that hunching over a mobile phone while texting can cause problems for your neck.

But Text Neck? This is the new name for this condition and it has received mass coverage in the last couple of days. American doctor Dean Fishman, who dreamed up the term and the definition, has even renamed his entire practice and website after it.

But Wordability’s problem is that the name trivialises a condition which is clearly worth thinking about, because it sounds glib. Frankly, it feels like something dreamed up to get headlines and to give people something to joke about, and means they will remember the name but not really think seriously about what it means.

And my personal problem with it? Every time I hear it, I think of Tex Mex. And then fajitas. And then burritos. And then I wonder whether you can get any chiropractic problems from leaning over a bowl of tortilla chips. Guacamole Neck anyone?