How Science and Technology Influence Language

How Science and Technology Influence Language

Via NPR (Podcast)



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.

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