June 19, 2013

The OED updates “follow,” “stream,” and other computing terms


Bible quote or Twitter exclamation?

The first dictionary I bought for school included the definition for information superhighway. The addition of this term merited a special announcement on the dust jacket, which seemed almost comical; by the time the phrase was incorporated into our language in an official sense, it felt clunky and out of date.

That’s because it takes ten years for new words to be declared “current” enough for the Oxford English Dictionary. But the editors have broken that rule in this release with the new definition of the noun and verb forms of tweet.

“It seems to be catching on,” said Oxford English Dictionary Chief Editor John Simpson.

What other internet terms have weaseled their way into the June release of the OED?

Big data, crowdsourcing, e-reader, and mouseover now appear in the updated version. Subentries  added in June include search engine optimization and its acronym, SEO. There’s a new phrase taken from “The Simpsons”: to have a cow.

What I like best are the words we’ve refashioned for new technology. Finding an old word to describe your behavior on a site that didn’t exist seven years ago is like hemming your mom’s old dress for summer. There are some exciting new entries that fall under computing.

The June release includes a verb has risen with the popularity of a certain social networking site: follow. Now in addition to accepting a person as a figure of authority, or coming after [someone or something] in the sense of place, time or sequence, you can attend closely to the activities or postings by subscribing to their account on a social media application.

Another verb that has emerged with a new definition in the wake of relatively new technology is stream (as it pertains, for instance, to Netflix). This word was in use in the twelfth century, and only a few decades ago was used to describe the transfer from Rdos to tape drives. The new meaning feels connected to the other senses of the word: a steady succession of words or events; a prevailing attitude or group.

The addition to stream in the OED:

Computing. To transfer (video and audio material) over a network (now esp. the Internet) or (less commonly) from a disk as a continuous, real-time stream of data. Cf.streaming n. Additions gstreaming adj. Additions b.

1981   Computerworld 10 Aug. 44/2   The package was designed as a stand-alone program to stream Rdos-compatible disks to formatted 100 in./sec streaming tape drives.
1996   Internet World. July 48/2   Multimedia applications such as streaming real-time audio and video.
2004   Internet Mag. New Year 35/2   Stream movies straight off the Net and directly into your TV.
2010   Independent 4 Nov. (Viewspaper section) 11/1   Getting an iPad to control iTunes on a laptop, which then streamed the music wirelessly to a phone.

The OED announcement doesn’t focus on the ubiquitous terms from social media sites (though most of the subsequent media headlines have focused on the addition of tweet). Instead it emphasizes the updated definitions for smaller words like head, hand, and heart.

The revised “range” for these words now contains 2,875 defined items, supported by 22,116 illustrative quotations. Head has 219 different variant forms, with the largest percentage stemming from the Middle English period (roughly 1150 to 1500 AD).

The shorter a word is, generally speaking, the more complex it is lexicographically. Short words are likely to be of Germanic origin, and so to derive from the earliest bedrock of English words; they have probably survived long enough in the language to spawn many new sub-senses; they are almost certain to have generated many fixed compounds and phrases often taking the word into undreamt-of semantic areas; and last but not least they have typically formed the basis of secondary derivative words which in turn develop a life of their own.

It doesn’t take long to find illustrative quotations for information superhighway if you Google around for a few minutes. But try coming up with examples of a word like head from 1150 AD! Tweet is a single, short note in the symphony of language we’ve been composing for millennia.


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.