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.