How Science and Technology Influence Language

Have you ever been Plutoed (demoted)? Is your inbox clogged with "bacn" (spam by personal request)? Are you a lifehacker (master at optimizing everyday routines)? Jonathon Keats, artist and author of Virtual Words, explains how science and technology influence language, and vice versa.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

A bit later in the hour, Christmastime bird-watching and the origins of innovation. But first, if you're a life hacker, you might say you're poning(ph) life, and you've probably never been Pluto-ed. We all hate spam in our inbox, but what about bacon? That's spam you ask for.

Well, today we're going to crowdsource your tweets, talk about language, new words created by science and technology, and if you didn't understand anything I just read, don't worry: My guest this hour can explain all those confusing new tech terms for us.

How do new words like tweet get popular? How do languages and science evolve together? Give us a call. Are there any new tech words you've heard that you'd like to share? Do you have an idea for a word that could go viral?

We at SCIENCE FRIDAY, we like Peabody. We want to get that word viral, a word we'd like to be used to replace geek in a positive way. Our number, 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK, and you can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I.

Let me introduce my guest. Jonathon Keats is the author of Jargon Watch column in Wired magazine. He has a new book out called "Virtual Words" virtual words, not worlds, words - "Language on the Edge of Science and Technology." He's also a conceptual artist, and he joins us from Italy. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. JONATHON KEATS (Wired Magazine): Thank you.

FLATOW: How do certain words catch on when other words don't?

Mr. KEATS: It seems to me that the words that catch on are those that are probably least clever, that call least attention to themselves and that really kind of percolate from general usage, whereas the words that are particularly fun or funny, they may come into existence, and they may go viral, but they tend to die out almost as quickly as they came about.

FLATOW: Do you have some favorite new words from this year?

Mr. KEATS: Yes, I've been watching, as a result of my work in Wired, and one word that I really like right now is hygroelectricity, which is not hydroelectricity, it's spelled H-Y-G-R-O, and what it refers to is electricity that is taken from the humidity in the air, much as lightning is a lightening is a manifestation of this.

And what I like about it is that it makes concrete in a word an idea that is very new and really right now is in the earliest prototyping stage in a laboratory.

And it has, I think, great potential as an alternative energy source, and because there is a word, there is something that we can call it, we can start talking about it and promoting it, tweeting it, if you will, and I think that that can really be as important as the technology itself in terms of whether it catches on.

FLATOW: So that's a good thing, when you have a word that tends to -people tend to coalesce around it and advance some sort of knowledge.

Mr. KEATS: Yes, and then, of course, the opposite as well. Another term that I particularly like this year is evercookies, which was a term coined by the veteran hacker Samy Kamkar, which refers to cookies, as in the cookies on your computer that remember what websites you've gone to, that never expire and cannot be removed. And he figured out a way to put cookies, I think eight different cookies onto a computer.

And it's really kind of a haunting term, which gets at a potentially very frightening problem, very frightening idea, that at some stage eBay and Amazon and other companies might be able to know a little bit more about us than we would like them to know.

And that term really makes it concrete in a way that we can start talking about it and perhaps that we can start to - to call into question, challenge this sort of imbalance in power that might be taking place.

FLATOW: Because you have, you have something, you have a word to describe it that everybody understands.

Mr. KEATS: Exactly. The word becomes the basis of a cause. Now, you mentioned refudiate earlier, which is a fascinating one because it has become at once a word that stands for a cause, namely the Tea Party cause, and also a word that stands against it. It depends on who uses the word, what that word means. And I think that these words are fascinating and are maybe becoming increasingly common in politics, but also disturbing because they speak to the fact that we maybe are starting to speak past each other in political terms based on what our beliefs are, that if two people who disagree with each other are using the same terminology with different meaning, and you can't see whether one person's eyebrow is raised, for instance, that there might be a lot of talking past one another.

And I think that we're seeing, in the political process right now, the inability of people to come to any sort of agreement or any sort of common term, that perhaps this is reflected in the language and also is perhaps some of the collateral damage of the language.

FLATOW: So do you think we might start seeing more of this polarizing or polarized language being developed from...

Mr. KEATS: I...

FLATOW: Go ahead.

Mr. KEATS: I believe so, not because the world is more polarized now than it has been in the past. That's a problem for political science, and I don't know the answer to that, but because technology facilitates the propagation of new terms.

I mean, in the case of refudiate, tweet - a Twitter tweet was the way in which that word got out into circulation. And Sarah Palin, of course, has access some more powerful means, including television and radio, but it also is possible for somebody who simply comes up with a clever term, who wants to put it out into the world, that person can to it.

Anyone can do that, and I think that as a result, there's going to be a lot more language out there in general. There already is a lot more, and there's going to be a lot more still, that is going to have the political connotations one way or another.

And whether we can make sense of them, given how many of them there are likely to be, how much noise there is likely to be, that I don't know.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones, to Eric(ph) in Gerber, California. Hi, Eric.

ERIC (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: Hi there. You've got a word for us.

ERIC: I certainly do. The word is omniverse, O-M-N-I-V-E-R-S-E, omniverse.

FLATOW: And how would you use that? What would it mean?

ERIC: Well, it's taken from the words omni, which is all, and verse, which is part of universe. When you think of universe, it's everything physical, everything you can see, you know, the entire heavens above us.

But omniverse is a larger set of everything that's included in the universe plus everything that's invisible. That means the heavens of the heaven, you know, where the angels are, anything imaginary. If there's anything outside the universe, it includes all of that. So basically...

FLATOW: Anything imaginable, basically.

ERIC: Anything imaginable.

FLATOW: Did you make up that yourself?

ERIC: I kind of put it together.

FLATOW: Let me ask Jonathan. What do you think of that?

Mr. KEATS: Well, it's an interesting term. There are two words that are circulating in particle physics that have something in common with it, one of which is multiverse, and the other of which is megaverse.

Multiverse is probably the more common of these, and what it refers to is all of the possible universes that arrive when you start applying the equations of string theory, the most common and fashionable theory of everything.

And the thing about the multiverse is that, first of all, it is necessary, given the mathematics of the best theory we have of everything, and secondly, it is not possible to actually access that multiverse because we are in our own universe.

So there's an interesting way in which I think the spirituality that is suggested by your omniverse, and the unknowability, scientifically speaking, suggested by multiverse, show a certain sort of resonance that maybe exists between science and religion, though neither side probably would like to hear about that.

And I think that language sometimes can point to these resonances and can lead us, if we are conscious and self-conscious in our language, to really think about the ways in which various realms, different fields, perhaps have things to say to and about each other or things that might refudiate one another.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We have a word ourselves. We're tired of the word geek and nerd, and we're trying to promote the word Peabody, from Peabody and Sherman in the Way-Back Machine from - someone's a real Peabody, that means they're sort of a geeky person but in a positive, constructive way. So how could we get that into the vocabulary? Is that not a good word?

Mr. KEATS: Well, you have a radio station. That's always a good start, though of course anyone in radio would think of the Peabody Awards first. So you might be causing a little bit of confusion there.

I think that a word like that actually does have some likelihood of success because it is just ambiguous enough where it came from, because - in a sense it's like spam, which is probably the single most successful new word of the past 20-odd years.

Spam comes about not because of the luncheon meat but because of a Monty Python skit about the luncheon meat that was used as sort of a code word by people within the MUDding community, multi-user dungeons, pre-dating the World Wide Web, and it was sort of a code word that once the World Wide Web evolved, once email evolved in a way that we now know it, this word already had a certain amount of obscurity to it, yet it also had enough familiarity to it that people took it as having authority, and so they started using it and kept using it.

And I think that Peabody is maybe at that right balance between being obscure and yet having a subculture of people who are going to get behind it because of because of where it comes from, because of what it refers to in a sort of sly way, that it might well catch on.

FLATOW: All right. Well, we'll have to watch and see if - if we call somebody a real Peabody, which we're very proud to be called a real Peabody, whether that really does catch on.

And speaking of catching on, there are a lot of interesting phrases and stuff to catch on in your book. Jonathon Keats is author of the Jargon Watch column in Wired magazine. He has a new book out called "Virtual Words: Language on the Edge of Science and Technology." And is it true that crowdsourcing comes right out of your Wired folks, that term?

Mr. KEATS: Not only that, it actually was coined or co-invented by my editor at Wired magazine.

FLATOW: Wow, there you have it. We've run out of time. I want to thank you, John.

Mr. KEATS: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Mr. KEATS: You too, good talking with you.

FLATOW: And as I say, he's author of the new book, "Virtual Words: Language on the Edge of Science and Technology."

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