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Jewish World Review July 18, 2002 / 9 Menachem-Av, 5762

Geoffrey Nunberg

Geoffrey Nunberg
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Prefixed Out | I did a piece on blogs a couple of months ago. After it ran I got an email from someone who objected to my use of the word, particularly when it's used to describe the records that people post on the web of their daily thoughts and doings. I should have called them "e-journals," she said. I could see her point, but blog is a syllable whose time has come. Who can resist that paleolithic pizazz? It's the tone you hear in a lot of programmer jargon, in words like kluge, munge, and scrog. That's how insiders demystify the technology. It sets them apart from the digital parvenus who lade their speech with technical-sounding language. When we use blog, it's as if to say we're all geeks now.

Anyway, it's gotten old, the whole business of of naming online phenomena by tacking a qualifier onto the name of some predigital category. First there was cyber-, which had its efflorescence in the first half of the 90's. Those were the salad days of cyberspace -- not the noirish locale that William Gibson had in mind when he coined the word, but more like something out of C. S. Lewis, an enchanted kingdom on the other side of the screen where everything and everyone had an aetherial cyber-counterpart: cybercrime and cyberpolice; cyberpoetry and cybernovels; cyberpets and cyberhippies. Cyber- connoted a place that was freed from the trammels of materiality and distance, where people would slip on new identities as easily as they changed their shirt. You think of the caption on that widely reprinted cartoon that Peter Steiner did in The New Yorker back in 1993: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

By the mid-90's, though, that cyber- talk was sounding awfully naïve. The net was becoming crowded, noisy, and above all lucrative. And it was turning out to be anything but anonymous -- it was more like, ""On the Internet, everybody knows what brand of dog food you buy." After 1996, the word cyberspace became less frequent in the press. The gold rush was on, and people migrated to the new prefix e-, which was short for Eldorado.

E- had a promising beginning -- in 1998 the American Dialect Society voted it the new word that was most likely to succeed. Like a lot of predictions that people were making back then, that one would turn out to be excessively optimistic. When you track the frequency of e- in the press, in fact, its fortunes almost exactly parallel the Nasdaq index -- by 2001, it was 60 percent off its peak. And e- isn't likely to make a comeback even when the tech sector reemerges, no more than most of the companies whose names began with it. It will stick around in e-commerce and of course email, the way cyber- is still around in a few words like cybersex -- maybe the last thing in digital life that has a touch of intrigue to it. But we've left off thinking of the online world as a remote or separate place. For the time being, at least, the new economy is going to be just a neighborhood of the old -- and one with a higher vacancy rate, at that.

Anyway, a lot of those distinctions were always unnecessary. What the idea behind the words cyberessay and cyberpoetry -- are essays and poetry really transformed once you no longer have to send them to the printer? Ditto e-statements and e-bills, not to mention all the increasingly desperate names that were coined with i- and k-, as companies started to switch prefixes as rapidly as business plans. For that matter, what's the point of "virtual baitshop," so long as the crawlers are real.

Of course a lot of the things that have emerged online are genuinely novel, but then why strain to find their offline counterparts? That's the beauty of "blog." You could call these things virtual journals, e-clipping services, or cyber-Christmas-letters. But why can't they just be unique in all their bloggy essence?

We go through this every time a new technology emerges. It took a while before people could stop talking about horseless carriages, electric iceboxes, and electronic brains, but in the end those hybrid names always wind up sounding quaint, and so will all those compounds with cyber-, e-, virtual, and the rest. If we were smart, we'd drag them all to the trash icon of history right now. But that isn't likely to happen. They'll end their days attached to useless computer accessories and get-rich-quick schemes, the same way the suffix -omatic migrated from the names of all those proud postwar Fords and Buicks to the tacky gadgets they sell on late-night TV.

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JWR contributor Geoffrey Nunberg is a Consulting Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University. The author of, most recently, "The Way We Talk Now," he also chairs the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Comment by clicking here.


06/13/02: Roil pain
04/11/02: The most influential man on corporate business language and image is 'spaced-out'
02/15/02: Cars and incantations
02/01/02: Hacking up our language
01/18/02: Rebirth of the Cool
01/11/02: The Last Post
01/04/02: Literal frustration
12/28/01: I Have Seen the Future, and It Blogs
12/21/01: An interjection for the age
12/14/01: Its own reward
12/07/01: Community sting
11/30/01: 100 Percent Solutions

© 2002, Geoffrey Nunberg