I’ve recently been writing a number of pieces linked to my new book about technology and language, Netymology. Below is the start of a feature for the BBC magazine about the history of tech neologisms – and the passions they can arouse.
From agriculture to automobiles to autocorrect, new things have always required new words – and new words have always aroused strong feelings.
In the 16th Century, neologisms “smelling too much of the Latin” – as the poet Richard Willes put it – were frowned upon by many.
Willes’s objects of contempt included portentous, antiques, despicable, obsequious, homicide, destructive and prodigious, all of which he labelled “ink-horn terms” – a word itself now vanished from common usage, meaning an inkwell made out of horn.
Come the 19th Century, the English poet William Barnes was still fighting the “ink-horn” battle against such foreign barbarities as preface and photograph which, he suggested should be rechristened “foreword” and “sun print” in order to achieve proper Englishness.
Forewords caught on, but sun prints didn’t, instead joining the growing ranks of outmoded terms for innovations – a scrapheap that by the end of the century ranged from temporarily mainstream names like velocipede (meaning “swift foot” and used to describe early bicycles and tricycles) to near-unpronounceable curiosities like phenakistoscope (an early device for animation, meaning “to deceive vision”).
I’ve spent much of the last year writing a book about technology and language and, today, the debate around what constitutes “proper” speech and writing is livelier than ever, courtesy of a transition every bit as significant (at least so far as language is concerned) as the Industrial Revolution.