'Virtual Words': Strange Things Happen When Words Collide -- Online and In My Mind

The barrage of new words spawned by the Internet can make anyone feel like a grumpy old man, ineffectively ranting at these young steampunks to get off our damn cyberlawn. That’s where Virtual Words by Wired magazine columnist Jonathon Keats comes in.

Virtual Words: Language on the Edge of Science and Technology

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Length: 177 pages
Author: Jonathon Keats
Price: $19.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2010-10

Even lovers of new language must draw the line somewhere. For my part, I detest the word “Blog”. Any mention of it makes me think of a naked fat man perched on a toilet, laptop wobbling on his sweaty knees, while he simultaneously types, moves his bowels and throws up.


It’s such a revolting image and a perfect onomatopoeia, I can’t get it out of my head. Every time a friend says, “check out my blog”, or some well-meaning career advisor tells me I ought to “start a blog”, I contemplate bi-orificial evacuation, and instead of firing up my computer, I go running for the Pepto.

Not all tech-inspired words are so awful. Alongside the corporate-coined “tweet” and the horrid, blog-derived “flog*” are words like “anthropocene” and “singularity”, sublime expressions of the technological and philosophical aspirations of our age. Even so, the barrage of novel verbiage these days can make anyone feel like a grumpy old man, ineffectively ranting at these young steampunks to get off our damn cyberlawn. That’s where Virtual Words by Wired magazine columnist Jonathon Keats comes in.

Keats, whose monthly "Jargon Watch" explores linguistic trends, has a much classier, less subjective and far more useful way of dealing with new words--examining how they are coined, how they gain traction and what they tell us about our newly networked and increasingly machine-mediated society. In a series of short, witty essays, Keats cracks the lexicon of the Internet age.

Words like plutoed, unparticle, in vitro meat, crowdsourcing, spime, mashup and gene foundry--Keats tracks down their origins, explains their meanings, and places them in an unexpectedly vast historical context, all with a dry and subtle humor that is the opposite of those “LOL at This!” kind of books. These essays move fast and veer in unpredictable ways, imparting some amazing trivia and errata. Who knew that Ambrose Bierce, of all people, may have invented the emoticon? Or that the obnoxious txt appendage “k” has roots in the Jacksonian era of American politics? Or that crackers, Scotsmen, dungeonmasters and Tag Team all claim pwnrship of “w00t”?

The format of the book also works in Keats’ favor, as there is no meta-narrative to fix one to a linear read. In other words, it’s as great to browse through in fits as it is to devour in one sitting. You might even put one next to your blogging stool (TM pending)!

Keats is worth checking out in other guises as well, especially for the odd and wonderful fables found in 2009’s The Book of the Unknown, as well as for his mad scientist take on conceptual art.

*I must say that being called a “blogger” is at least better than being called a “flogger”, defined as a public relations flack who poses as a blogger in order to advance a corporate agenda. I’m sorry, but flogging, to my mind, combines the gross “blog” with the smutty “flog” [as in to flog one’s log] into an image of that same fat guy, only now he’s typing, barfing, crapping and masturbating while a Walmart executive dumps a bucket of money over his head. No thanks.


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