Release notes: capturing the interweb of words

Release notes: capturing the interweb of words

‘Have you heard of this new inter-web thingy?’ one character sarcastically asks of another  in a quotation recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary’s new entry for Interweb.The humorous power of this self-consciously incorrect mashup of a word  lies in the fact that for many of us in 2015, the World Wide Web is often only a click or a tap away, and, the words Internet  and online—the entries for which have been revised and expanded in this latest OED update—represent an inescapable fact of everyday life. We use the global network of interconnected computer networks that is the Internet (and especially the systems such as email and the World Wide Web which it makes possible) for both work and play, and many of us choose to organize and record much of our lives online. For those who were not ‘born digital’, life without the Internet is at once easy to remember, but hard to imagine, and for many digital natives, life without instant communication and instant access to a world’s worth of information is almost inconceivable.

Some of the additions to Internet and onlineinternet banking, internet shopping, internet radio, online gambling, online game, online newspaper, online magazine, and new entries such as webisode and e-edition—show some of the ways that the Internet has come to shape the practicalities, pleasures, and vices of our everyday lives, and how it has become one of our main sources of information about the world around us. While accessing the Internet used to be only an optional activity for many computer users, in a world of mobile internet, netbooks, tablets, and smartphones, our desire to make the most of our online opportunities (our FOMO–‘fear of missing out’) is increasingly shaping the technology we use. As vast, constantly expanding repositories of written English, the Internet and its various applications in information-sharing are also helping to shape dictionaries such as the OED, both by generating and popularizing new vocabulary, and in providing new sources to be cited in the Dictionary’s illustrative quotations for its entries and senses.

Special sources: the Web, Usenet, and Twitter

An OED entry for the word  Internet was first published  on this website in 2001, by which time the word had already become interchangeable with ‘World Wide Web’ for many of the Web’s users. It was also in this year that the OED (which had been making use of electronic transcriptions and networked databases of printed works since the early 1980s) began to include quotations drawn directly from the World Wide Web and other Internet resources. The online OED now includes more than 500 quotations from webpages, all of which have been preserved in the Dictionary’s archives, to ensure their continued accessibility even if internet service providers or other services hosting the page cited decide to  pull the plug.

But the online source which has supplied OED editors with the greatest number of citations so far is the system of newsgroups known as Usenet. The OED currently makes use of nearly 2,500 quotations from Usenet, with quotations from its newsgroups providing the first available evidence for use in more than 400 senses or entries. As might be expected from an Internet discussion system which has been around since 1980, Usenet provides early evidence for many computing and Internet-related terms (defrag, the verb to email, http, mp3, p2p, XML) and vocabulary from the shadowy world of hacking (black-hat and white hat, darknet, hacktivism). The power of the Internet to allow people to form online communities based on shared interests and experiences which have nothing to do with the technological medium itself is demonstrated by other notable outcrops of antedatings from Usenet, in areas reflecting particular enthusiasms such as ‘geek culture’ (cosplay, LARP, retcon, alpha geek, anime, and the newly added ship), identity politics (LGBT, cisgender), and sexual subcultures (BDSM).

While Twitter has a long way to go before it catches up with Usenet as a source of OED quotations, it is showing its potential both to generate new vocabulary and to provide us with evidence of it in use. With an alleged average of 6,000 tweets sent every second, 350,000 tweets per minute, and a staggering 500 million tweets each day, Twitter represents a massive new textual resource and culture. OED lexicographers’ first professional encounter with the service, in June 2013, outlined the relatively short history of two new senses of the verb tweet, with an entry for hashtag following a year later. In all three cases, Twitter postings themselves provided the earliest available evidence of these words in use. Today, the third edition of the OED contains 20 entries or senses for which a posting to Twitter serves as our first quotation, and 16 of these – including tweeter, retweet, tweeter and retweeter, twitterer, and the playful twitterati – make their first appearance in this update. Trend and trending, new senses of existing words applied specifically  to the flurries of activity seen on Twitter and other social media sites in response to gossip, news, or the latest hilarious must-see meme, are  also first cited here from tweets.

Two little words: totes, and meh

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of sources such as Usenet and Twitter for lexicographers is the potential to access and monitor unfiltered examples of English in informal use. In the past, with the exception of a few sources such as editions of letters or diaries, our main sources of informal and slang usage have been taken from dictionaries dealing specifically with these aspects of the language, or from fictional representations of slang and colloquial English.

Quotations from Usenet illustrating OED‘s existing entries for chav, chavvy, girlf, boyf, kewl, skeezy, soz, trackie daks, wankered, and for several the initialisms which are a feature of electronic communication (IMO, TMI, WTF) show the potential of these online sources to generate,  capture and preserve examples of everyday, colloquial English at its most inventive and colourful, not to say lurid. Two very small words from the current update show how OED continues to make use of online texts in order to investigate the history and development of English.

Tweets provide the earliest evidence for totes, a handy shortening of ‘totally’, used both as an interjection and an adjective when lingering over three tedious syllables would grossly under-represent the urgency of the enthusiasm you feel:

We’re totes hearting this pic of Emma Watson at a recent premiere!

At he other end of the scale, the dismissive interjection meh, manages in three letters to convey indifference or boredom as succinctly as it is possible to do while still saying something. With potential etymological forebears in the earlier Yiddish me or in the rare mneh, and popularized by The Simpsons, the earliest example of use in the contemporary three-letter form comes, once again, from Usenet.

‘Totes amazeballs!’, eh? Or you might share the outlook—if not the vocabulary—of a blogger expressing an opinion elsewhere on the Interweb:

It’s all a bit – and I hate this word – meh. Whatevs. I hate that word as well. Meh, whatevs. Totes meh.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.