Monday, May 24, 2010


The application becomes the verb

The New York Times recently reported on a web site for “registering” one’s prom dress, in the hope that it would help classmates to avoid wearing the same one.

Now, the horror of wearing the same dress as someone else is something I’ll never understand; I actually think it’s cool when I see someone else wearing a shirt that I also own, and it’s even more amusing if we’re both wearing them at the same time. Be that as it may, it’s not that aspect of the story that struck me. It’s this, in the last paragraph here:

“The group is basically for seniors to put their dresses up and underclassmen to look, so they know what dresses not to get,” said Ms. Dong, who is 18.

But a month later, a junior from her school e-mailed to say she had bought the same dress — and didn’t intend to return it.

“I messengered back and said, ‘Why did it take you so long to tell me?’ ” recalled an incredulous Ms. Dong.

She “messengered”?

I’ve long thought that “messaged” was bad enough,[1] but now we need “messengered”?

On the other hand, it’s clear where it comes from: the program that she uses to send some messages is called “Messenger”, and, as we’ve done for many years, we tend to turn the application names into the verbs for what they do.

One of the most well known, of course, is "Googling". For the generic verb “to email”, I’ve heard “Gmail” and “Hotmail” used as well, and back in mainframe days when we used PROFS (the system that took down Oliver North), folks would say, “PROFS it to me.”

For the verb “to instant-message”, everyone at IBM would say “I’ll Sametime you,” after Lotus Sametime, IBM’s instant-messaging system.

And so on. It’s a testament to ubiquity and familiarity that, just as Kleenex, Xerox, and Sanka have been used generically, computer application names get verbed into the actions that they’re used to perform.

Still... she “messengered”? Oy.

[1] For reference, I’d say, “I sent a message back...”, or, “I responded”, which shows you how un-cool I am.

1 comment:

Dr. Momentum said...

We have certain habits that we default to when we don't have the language to say what we want to say (as when it is pertinent to the conversation what application you were using.)

This tendency is natural. I see it as a path-of-least-resistance effect, just as with "texting" language. Language is not about rules as much as it is about communication within a social context. The context, more than anything, sets the rules. Our perception of our context helps us decide what rules we're playing by. While we have codified the rules for the purpose of teaching them, for editors, and to slow down the transformation of language, the social forces at work are powerful.

We carry our context with us, and they have become part of our own thinking. As a techie, this probably was as obvious to you as it was to me back in undergraduate school when studying computer science gave me a whole new vocabulary which not only applied to my studies, but which I could use to talk to my friends about things outside of computer science. (Computer science becomes a metaphor for many things; the language of computer science is suddenly mediating our understanding of the world.) This is not only an effect that is seen in a group of geeks studying computer science; information processing theory (and other cognitive science theoretical perspectives which gained some popularity in the 80's) sought to understand human thought from the perspective of computing machines.

When "texting" language pops up in other places, and when application-to-verb transformations creep into our language, we're seeing a bit of how people are thinking leaking out into their communication. To put it into more acceptable English is an act of translation. People aren't trying to be cool by using new language; that is the way they're thinking, and they've gotten it from social context.

I'm still trying to figure out how much of Vygotsky is in Pygmalion. Which reminds me: there's a paper on the language of classrooms that I didn't have time to read during the semester, and it referenced ,y favorite George Bernard Shaw play.

This paper, however, was more about teacher expectation than it was on language reflecting situation.