Computerese: A Brave New Word Out There

Most high schools today require their graduates to have taken a foreign language. What language are young people learning today? They're learning to talk computers.

Technically speaking, computerese isn't a language. It's a jargon. One of the definitions of jargon is "unintelligible talk or writing; gibberish; babble," and to the uninitiated that's exactly what it sounds like.

One characteristic of jargon is that it takes familiar words and adapts them to unfamiliar meanings. Something that is floppy is loose and limber; a disk is something circular. In computerese a floppy disk is a solid square.

Thumbing through a Macintosh manual, I learned about icons, but these icons are not Christian paintings or sculptures. Computerese gives us menus, buttons, bits and defragmentation. We find windows, including layered windows. "A color graphic with 16 colors per pixel requires four bits to represent each pixel." Yes.

These days a popular pastime for masters of computerese is to surf the Internet. Lexicographers are lagging far behind the high-school students. None of my dictionaries lists "Internet," and all of them define "to surf" only as riding the waves on a surfboard.

The "cyber" prefix apparently emerged from the "cybernetics" of Norbert Wiener in 1948. He combined the Greek word for helmsman or governor with the Greek and Latin suffix -etic, and behold: Computerese was born. About 1963 the English language absorbed "to cybernate," meaning to control by computer. Somewhere out there is cyberspace.

Random House lists cyberphobia, defined as "an abnormal fear of computers." How do the lexicographers know what is an "abnormal" fear of computers? My own fear of computers is perfectly normal. I just stand back and marvel.

Ten years ago Verbatim, the language quarterly, awarded its annual prize to an essay on new words. The author asserted that contemporary American English "is probably the most prolific word-producing machine that has existed since language first appeared on this planet." I'll drink to that!

The cyberneticians aren't the only expanders of vocabulary. Frazier Moore of The Associated Press came up with an absolutely gorgeous word a year ago. He was writing about ice skater Nancy Kerrigan, whose "pristine and ingenuish image has been punctured." Ingenuish! I love it! The adjective neatly combines ingenue, ingenuous and gush. Open the gates of lexicography and let it in.

I believe "flavorous" also is new. It turned up in a supermarket ad in Florida some months ago: flavorous bananas, 33 cents a pound. Nothing wrong with that.

Quite a few new verbs have come over the transom. In the Cleveland Plain Dealer last June a feature writer interviewed a student shopper who was "looking forward to his first full summer of garage saling." It would conjugate. The Corning (N.Y.) Leader reported that a 14-year-old boy, injured in an accident, "was life-flighted to Robert Packer Hospital in Sayre." Probably he was helicoptered, or choppered.

Jill O'Nan of Cincinnati passed along a letter to the editor of the Enquirer: "As an avid fan of baseball, I am absolutely abhorred (abhor is an old verb; here it's simply used passively) by what I have witnessed . . ." A great many other avid fans share her abhorrence.

None of my desk dictionaries sanction "to incent," thank you, but the abhorrible verb regularly appears in business publications. One company announced a stock plan "in order to incent" its key employees. "To incent" is worse than "to incentivize," but not much worse.

From a publication called Musclecar Review comes a verb that may be no more than an interesting misspelling. "Lug nuts aren't expensive, but they sure can widdle away at the budget." Webster's III lists widdle as a shortened form of widdle-waddle, meaning to struggle or wriggle. I have heard the verb as baby talk for what infants do when they wet their diapers, but I expect all the writer meant was "whittle away."

Two newspapers, far apart, made a verb out of Dr. Kevorkian last year. At a time when Florida was getting some bad publicity for the shooting of a tourist, The Associated Press quoted the head of Miami's convention bureau: "Channel 7 is Kevorkianing their own marketplace." In Seattle the Post-Intelligencer reported that a computer-publishing firm had gone broke. "At least it was able to Kevorkian itself, instead of being buried by competitors."

Now there's a verb that won't make it. Shoot "to Kevorkian" into cyberspace and let it go.

(Copyright 1995, Universal Press Syndicate)

The Writer's Art by James J. Kilpatrick appears Sunday in the Scene section. Address comments or questions to: Writer's Art, c/o Newsroom, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.