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The Evolution of Tech Grammar, or: Language is Goofy

Posted April 18, 2016 12:00 AM by Hannes
Pathfinder Tags: ap style grammar words

From 2008 to 2009 I worked for HSBC Bank, one of the more interesting workplaces to be in during the Great Recession. A disgruntled non-customer, whom I believe was teetering on the edge of financial oblivion like so many of us, once pointedly asked me what the hell HSBC stood for, anyway. I told him that it was just an acronym*...that the actual name of the business was HSBC Bank--nothing more, nothing less. "But you're like, a Chinese bank, right? Isn't the 'H' for Hong Kong?" I assured him it was not, making him even angrier at the situation.

While I may have been coy about (playfully) screwing with this man, HSBC is a British company; it was originally based in Hong Kong and the acronym once stood for Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. In 1991 it reorganized and from then on legally existed as HSBC Holdings plc. I can't say I know why the company disassociated from its Far Eastern roots, but the point is that language and acronyms change for various reasons: falling in and out of common usage, to avoid certain stereotypes or associations, or just because they become too verbose or antiquated.

[*As a CR4 editor pointed out to me after reading this post, HSBC might be more accurately termed an initialism before 1991, and a pseudo-initialism since. Acronyms are "pronounced," like NATO and JPEG, while initialisms are strings of initials.]

A few weeks ago the Associated Press made a major announcement: the 2016 AP Stylebook will lowercase both "internet" and "web." In line with past stylebook changes, it's safe to assume that the AP believes that these two terms are now generic enough to merit lowercased usage. Pro-lowercase activists look to the origin of the word to make their point: the "internet" of old was simply an internetwork of smaller networks using the same protocol. So when we speak about the modern Internet--the one I'm using to research this blog post and connect remotely to my office computer--we're referring to the largest and best-known example of an internet. Also, they say lowercasing is more efficient, saving thousands of Shift-key strokes, and that capitalized nouns are a strain on the eyes, introducing roadblocks into neatly flowing text.

The other side of the battle, on which I sometimes side, takes issue with the word "the." Think about the star at the center of our solar system. A star at the center of some other distant solar system could be called its "sun," but we call the most local and best-known example to us on Earth the Sun, capitalized and all, for clarity. I know of no other significant internets other than THE Internet--if you know of one feel free to comment and enlighten me. And regarding the web, what if we're trying to describe researching spider webs online? Would we look up webs on the web? Isn't the Web clearer? Call me antiquated (my wife does on a daily basis, so I'm used to it), but I like my Internet and Web, even if I'm too lazy to click Shift and actually capitalize them most of the time.

These technologically related style changes happen pretty frequently. For example, AP changed their usage of Web site to website in 2010, and e-mail to email in 2011. These make more sense as generic terms, in my opinion: we surely no longer think of email as "electronic mail." With the slow demise of postal mail, perhaps email will one day be referred to as just "mail," and postal mail will become oldmail or cismail, maybe.

The fluidity of technical terminology is also easily seen in anacronyms, or words that were formerly acronyms but have fallen into common usage. Lasers were originally "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation," for example. Treating "laser" as a common noun allowed us to back-form the verb "to lase," meaning to produce laser light. Ironically for me as a technical writer and editor, even the verb "to edit" was back-formed from "editor," the original term.

The possibility for confusing variation and evolution in the English language is endless. Who knows? Maybe in 50 years our descendants will just switch on their computers and internet.

Image credit: Stinging Eyes / CC BY-SA 2.0

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#1

Re: The Evolution of Tech Grammar, or: Language is Goofy

04/18/2016 7:51 AM

English words are infiltrating other languages such as Welsh and French. Some linguists use the label "loanwords"; others might describe the phenomenon as "pollution".

  • There is no truth in the rumour that HSBC stands for Have Some Bouncing Cheques. None whatsoever.
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#3
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Re: The Evolution of Tech Grammar, or: Language is Goofy

04/18/2016 2:49 PM

Just watch cycling from France or Belgium and take note of how many signs can be read by English speaking people. Quite surprising how it has spread into other languages. Before long, the French, Italians, and so on can have the "fun" we English speaking folks have - exceptions to EVERY rule of spelling because of the inter mixing of languages.

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#13
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Re: The Evolution of Tech Grammar, or: Language is Goofy

04/19/2016 3:23 PM

Hopefully they get the benefit of not having to deal with masculine and feminine definite and indefinite articles.

Say what you will about English, at least we don't have to remember if the table is a chick or a dude.

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#15
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Re: The Evolution of Tech Grammar, or: Language is Goofy

04/19/2016 3:48 PM

No - we just have:

i before e EXCEPT... Most folks have trouble even remembering the initial rule, let alone the exception.

An apostrophe denotes a word contraction, and it denotes possession. So we get to the word its, or do we want it's there? Not if it is possessive!!

Read - pronounced like red or like reed depending on tense. (makes me tense)

Same with lead.

Then there is dead - if you want the thing to sound like reed, better spell it that way - EXCEPTION

And that shows another good point. Is it read or reed for what you are spelling?

Then we have world and whirled. This list could overload the processor.

I've learned to speak in Latin and Spanish in my lifetime - remembering masculine of feminine is minor compared to the mess we have in English. Have you looked at a written work by a normal millenial lately? Millenials - what am I criticizing them for - I spent more time correcting spelling on Mech. Engr. homework as an assistant to a professor when I was a grad student, than correcting the actual engineering and equations, and that was with whatever group came between baby boomers and millenials. (another questionable English problem - is it Baby Boomer or as I have it?)

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#20
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Re: The Evolution of Tech Grammar, or: Language is Goofy

04/25/2016 8:18 AM

"Say what you will about English, at least we don't have to remember if the table is a chick or a dude"

Yes but you have to remember two languages - one spoken and one written.

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#4
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Re: The Evolution of Tech Grammar, or: Language is Goofy

04/18/2016 7:35 PM

But English is also famous for vacuuming (or Hoovering for those on the other side of the Pond) up all kinds of 'foreign' words and making them her own.

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#8
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Re: The Evolution of Tech Grammar, or: Language is Goofy

04/19/2016 9:21 AM

"English does not 'borrow' from other languages, English follows other languages into dark alleys, pushes them over, and then riffles through the pockets for loose grammar."

That's the version I prefer, it paints a more humo(u)ro(u)s picture on the listener's mind, and I so enjoy playing around in other peoples minds.

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#7
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Re: The Evolution of Tech Grammar, or: Language is Goofy

04/19/2016 6:23 AM

I believe that in France they have a law prohibiting the importing of foreign words, in order to preserve the language.

It's a good job we don't have such a law in the UK: otherwise someone would need to think of an English word for "bidet".

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#9
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Re: The Evolution of Tech Grammar, or: Language is Goofy

04/19/2016 9:25 AM

How about "butt-fountain"for bidet? Doesn't sound as elegant as before, though.

Then we'd need to come up with a new word for Brassiere, probably something that sounds less crude than 'boobsling.'

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#16
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Re: The Evolution of Tech Grammar, or: Language is Goofy

04/19/2016 7:20 PM

Over-the-shoulder-boulder-holder?

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#18
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Re: The Evolution of Tech Grammar, or: Language is Goofy

04/20/2016 9:06 AM

Not bad, not bad at all.

I'd give you an "A" for that, but that term seems more appropriate for a "D" or perhaps two "D"s.

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#2

Re: The Evolution of Tech Grammar, or: Language is Goofy

04/18/2016 10:49 AM

Maybe in 50 years our ancestors will just switch on their computers and internet.
Yup, any word can be verbed.

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#5

Re: The Evolution of Tech Grammar, or: Language is Goofy

04/18/2016 10:38 PM

In Canada we are bi-lingual and the so called French have a hate on for English. My reply to them is they are hating a NOTHING. I claim we have no such thing as an English language simply because we will use any word that gets the job or the idea completed. The so called English language is hard pressed to find even 10% of its words as pure English origin where as the French for an example try to come up with a purely French word to meet the challenge of a growing vocabulary. This is even more evident in the engineering and technology areas of our world. Good luck to the purists this is an area where mingling gets the job done.

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#11
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Re: The Evolution of Tech Grammar, or: Language is Goofy

04/19/2016 10:01 AM

It seems like Central Canada is the Northern equivalent of America's Deep South: Always wanting the other side to make the concessions for a compromise, but never offering to make any concessions themselves.

Anglophone Canadian schools teach English and French.

Francophone Canadian schools teach French and more French.

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#12
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Re: The Evolution of Tech Grammar, or: Language is Goofy

04/19/2016 10:44 AM

Purists don't stand a hope in hades. There aren't enough of them. It is so much easier to "adopt" a new word, or an old one, than try to come up with a new word in any other language. Eventually, with all the new technology and terminology for same everyone will be "speaking the same language" so to speak.

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#19
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Re: The Evolution of Tech Grammar, or: Language is Goofy

04/20/2016 9:15 AM

Although one aspect of 'Tech language" we haven't addressed, is when a word or term is re-appropriated, but society, or members thereof, still view the negative connotations of that word.

The best example I can think of is from digital electronics, the Master-Slave Flip-flop, The IDE disk interface, which designates the primary and secondary devices on the cable as "Master" and "Slave," and, building off the concepts in the M-S Flip-Flop, the term 'to slave' meaning "to connect a piece of equipment to another in such a way that the downstream (or 'slave') unit receives all its control signals from the upstream (or 'master') unit."

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#6

Re: The Evolution of Tech Grammar, or: Language is Goofy

04/19/2016 12:08 AM

"Maybe in 50 years our ancestors will just switch on their computers and internet."

NOPE! in 50 years I believe all our ancestors will be dead! Mine already are!

Now as to our descendents 50 years from now, they may or may not refer to their personal communication/research/design devices as computers, and I'd bet that whatever system they use for interconnection will be very different from today's internet, although it is quite conceivable that they might have converted "internet" into a verb and continue to use it...

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Re: The Evolution of Tech Grammar, or: Language is Goofy

04/19/2016 9:26 AM

Oops, thanks for the catch--it's been edited. I have to appreciate the irony in that this mistake appeared on a post about nitpicky grammar.

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#14

Re: The Evolution of Tech Grammar, or: Language is Goofy

04/19/2016 3:29 PM

"From 2008 to 2009 I worked for HSBC Bank, one of the more interesting workplaces to be in during the Great Recession. A disgruntled non-customer, whom I believe was teetering on the edge of financial oblivion like so many of us, once pointedly asked me what the hell HSBC stood for, anyway. I told him that it was just an acronym*...that the actual name of the business was HSBC Bank--nothing more, nothing less. "But you're like, a Chinese bank, right? Isn't the 'H' for Hong Kong?" I assured him it was not, making him even angrier at the situation.

While I may have been coy about (playfully) screwing with this man, HSBC is a British company; it was originally based in Hong Kong and the acronym once stood for Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation."
So this guy, under huge stress and teetering on the edge of financial oblivion, gets it right and you tell him "nope" and go about your business? If you didn't proceed to tell him that he was right with the original name, you were a jerk right here.

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#17
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Re: The Evolution of Tech Grammar, or: Language is Goofy

04/19/2016 9:44 PM

Indeed I was. I've since forgiven my 23-year-old self for it.

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#21

Re: The Evolution of Tech Grammar, or: Language is Goofy

05/17/2016 8:52 AM

In 50 years,or descendants may be scratching our monitors with a stone,and dancing

around a fire to the screeching music they make,like finger nails on a chalkboard.

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