Virtual Words: Snapshot of current tech speak is a fun and easy read

Many people love etymology, even if they might not be familiar with the term. Venues exploring the fascinating meanings and background of words — books, articles, newspaper columns, electronic newsletters (see, for example, “The Word Guy” with Rob Kyff), and websites (such as Richard Lederer’s Verbivore) — have abounded at least since Samuel Johnson included occasional tidbits of word histories and social commentary in his Dictionary of the English Language from 1755. Consider Johnson’s well-known definition of oats as “a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Ambrose Bierce gave his own twisted take on word meanings in The Devil’s Dictionary (1911), as in his definition of telephone: “An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.”

On my to-read pile alone, I have such similar word-focused collections as Martha Barnette’s Dog Days and Dandelions: A Lively Guide to the Animal Meanings Behind Everyday Words, Rick Bayan’s The Cynic’s Dictionary, Castle Books’ Why Do We Say It? The Stories Behind the Words, Expressions and Clichés We Use, Chrysti the Wordsmith’s (Chrysti M. Smith) Verbivore’s Feast: A Banquet of Word & Phrase Origins, and Evan Morris’ The Word Detectives.

But now I can move yet another etymological compendium to my has-been-read pile: Jonathon Keats’ Virtual Words: Language on the Edge of Science and Technology. Besides being a novelist and contributor of articles to a number of magazines, newspapers and websites, Keats writes a monthly column for Wired magazine called “Jargon Watch,” in which he discusses the hottest new words he has spotted in the media over the past month. His entries for the current book, however, were based on different criteria. As he says in the Preface, “What mattered most in making this selection is that each word have a noteworthy history and that collectively they embody the diversity of scientific and technological language today” (p. ix). And obviously, given that Virtual Words contains essays on only 28 words and phrases, many others could equally well have served his purposes here, as he also acknowledges. What he is offering, then, is a snapshot of current tech speak, providing not just definitions of each term, but also historical and scientific background, connections to related vocabulary, and ruminations on such philosophical concerns as how metaphors shape our understanding of complex subjects and why some words endure while others disappear.

This collection is a fast, easy read. It opens with a table of contents, followed by a short Preface, in which Keats explains his content and purpose, and ends with a useful 11-page index. In between come the 28 essays, divided into six sections, each with its own one-to-two-page introduction: Discovery (containing chapters on copernicium, microbiome, unparticle and anthropocene), Innovation (the cloud, in vitro meat, qubit, gene foundry and memristor), Commentary (bacn, copyleft, great firewall, flog and crowdsourcing), Promotion (Conficker, steampunk, Tweet and lifehacker), Slang (mashup, k, w00t, (-///-) and plutoed) and Neologism (singularity, quid, spime, exopolitics and Panglish). The essays range in length from three pages to eight, with the majority running five, thus making the book ideal for picking up at odd moments to read a selection, then set aside until the next free moment, without losing track of a sustained argument or storyline. Of course, for some readers, this rather fragmented design and lack of a strong overall thesis might make the book less appealing, although for others the exposure to fresh words and their interesting back stories will provide entertainment enough.

And as far as entertainment value goes, the book provides a considerable amount of it derived from a number of sources. First, since I consider myself a hardcore logophile and etymology buff, I enjoyed learning the origins, early uses and subsequent development of all of these expressions, even those, such as Conficker (“Alias for one of the most infectious computer worms of all time,” p. 83) and anthropocene (“The current geological epoch,” p. 18), that I had not heard of before and that were actually minimally relevant to my own background and interests. As a specific example, I found the explanation of emoticons in general, and of the different orientations of Western vs. Asian emoticons in particular (for example, Western 😉 vs. Asian (^_~) for a wink), all in service of explaining (-///-) — an Asian emoticon for blushing or embarrassment — both fascinating and amusing.

In fact, the humor in Keats’ writing is another factor contributing to the pleasure of Virtual Words. Much of the humor builds from the way Keats tells his stories and drops delightful bons mots as a kind of punch line at their ends, as well as from the stories themselves. Most are too long to present here, but I can at least mention that for exopolitics (“foreign affairs with alien races,” p. 156), Keats tells of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s supposed meetings with extraterrestrials — twice.  However, some one-liners can be appreciated out of full context. For example, in the chapter on unparticle (“A subatomic particle that by any conventional definition isn’t one,” p. 13), Keats comments that “to an outsider, quantum mechanics begins to resemble an advanced case of Tourette’s” (p. 16), and in relation to in vitro meat (“Steak and chops grown from cultured muscle cells in an industrial vat,” p. 31), he says that “for those who view technology as a monster, in vitro meat has the sound of frankenfood, with a built-in yuck factor” (p. 33).

The examples just cited also nicely illustrate a third strength of Keats’ writing: his language. Even at his least humorous, his way with words is often pleasing, even memorable. I especially admire his no-holds-barred take on the popularity of blogs: “Blogging took off partly because services such as Blogger made it accessible, partly because petty narcissism became a trendy corollary to online anonymity, and partly because the trend had a fresh name, a shibboleth for a solipsistic subculture” (pp. 74-75). In other chapters, he characterizes artificial life as “technically just a strenuous construction project” (p. 42), argues that mashups share “the notion that culture is interactive, a feedback loop rather than a mail chute” (p. 108), and concludes his essay on Panglish — also the last words of the book’s text — by arguing that macroeconomics is a better analogy to language than is accounting, “though even this comparison is imperfect, since in language supply and demand are mutually reinforcing. Language is richest when it is freely circulated” (p. 166).

Even beyond the inherent interest of Keats’ content and the attractions of his language, a final plus for me in his writing is his pervasive references and allusions — to historical events and figures, to literary works and characters, and to other cultural, especially pop-cultural, elements. From his opening paragraph’s discussion (p. 1) of Robert Hooke’s discovery of the cell (and the explanation of where the word for that discovery came from — a cell’s visual resemblance to a monk’s chamber) to his last reference to Sir John Cheke (the first professor of Greek at Cambridge University and ardent English purist) on page 166, Virtual Words is overflowing with historical, linguistic and cultural tidbits, all seamlessly integrated into the larger discussions of Keats’ words of choice. My favorite example: In his chapter on plutoed, he starts with a consideration of Stephen Colbert’s coinage truthiness, moves on to a discussion of the discovery of ex-planet Pluto and other uses of the name (including Mickey Mouse’s pet dog), with a footnote reference to Minerva and Persephone and many more allusions and references along the way, and in the last paragraph, synopsizes the story of Eris, “the Greek deity who instigated the Trojan War by tossing a golden apple to her fellow goddesses and declaring that it belonged to the fairest,” before concluding, “Coveted as senselessly as a golden apple, planetary status is as subjective as the fairness of goddesses” (p. 136).

Overall, then, while Virtual Words is an undeniably fun read, it is also very much an example in itself of the kind of scientific and technological ephemera that figure quite centrally in Keats’ own discussions of his 28 words and phrases — any of the words he has included here may be as dead next year as floppy or phrenology. And that fact may lead readers to wonder if such an oddity as a hardcover print essay collection focusing on such potentially short-lived expressions could really be worth its $19.95 cover price. The answer will surely depend on how interested one is in having a limited and fairly random sampling of etymological studies at one’s fingertips or, alternatively, in rereading at some future time a collection of well-written, frequently amusing, often thought-provoking, and uniformly insightful essays which frequently do go beyond the individual word to larger historical, scientific and social considerations. In the end, as Keats says, “Like computer memory, science and technology have a tendency to overwrite their past” (p. x), and given that reality, we might indeed find it useful to be able to look back at earlier developments, including the vocabulary associated with them, and recognize how we and the world have changed since then.