In a word: Computer culture gives common words a reboot

To say that computers are everywhere is an understatement. Whether we’re working, playing, shopping or just relaxing, computers are probably playing some part. But it isn’t just our day-to-day existence that these brainy devices are affecting, they’re also changing the meanings of words.

Consider this familiar pair of portmanteau words. “Bit” previously referred to a small amount of something, but now is a basic unit of computer information. The word, which is the contraction of “binary digit,” was coined by John Tukey in 1947. “Pixel,” the smallest controllable element of a picture represented on the screen, is a shortened version of “picture element.”

We get around this world of pixels and bits by means of a browser, which used to describe a person who perused stores and libraries, but is now a term for a computer program with a graphical user interface for going between web pages.

These pages probably exist not in our computers, but in the cloud. Of course they don’t reside in a big stratocumulus cloud in the sky, they’re accessible on the internet instead of in our computers.

We navigate around those web pages by using a cursor, which is a Latin word that means “runner,” and is also the sliding part of a slide rule (you younger folks will need to Google that). Nowadays a cursor is that little arrow, hand or blinking line that shows you the point that will be affected by your input.

Sadly, even with all this technology working in their favor, computers still get sick. Sometimes they get a bug, which is a term that originated when a moth wreaked havoc in an early mainframe computer. No lie.

Computers can also get infected with viruses, which used to refer to an illness that spread quickly, before the term was applied to computers. Wouldn’t it be great if the word “virus” only pertained to computer problems, and we had no need for a word describing the source of sickness and anxiety caused by COVID-19 and its ilk?

One can hardly think about technology and its affects without social media coming to mind. Remember when tweets used to come from birds and you were all atwitter about something exciting? Now famous people have followers who hang on their every word (although some of those followers also stalk them).

And do you remember when a handle was something that helped you pick up something? Now it’s your screen name. Of course that concept is nothing new to the millions of CB radio enthusiasts still out there who have their own “handles.”

Careful though: Using the wrong words can get you blocked, and not just by some big guy standing in your way. Heck, it can even end up getting you deplatformed, which is a fancy way of saying banned in the social media world.

To that end, here’s some good advice from a former Twitter heavyweight: “Before this, you’d write a letter, and you’d say, ‘This letter’s really bad.’ You’d put it on your desk, and you go back tomorrow, and you say, ‘Oh, I’m glad I didn’t send it,’ right? But we don’t do that with Twitter.” —Donald Trump

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.”


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