Technological change, as we know very well, tends to provoke linguistic and cultural change, too. It’s the reason why, several times a year, dictionaries trumpet the addition of new and typically very trendy words.
But more interesting than the new words, I think, are the old words that have gotten new meanings: words such as “cloud” and “tablet” and “catfish,” with very long pre-Internet histories. The reappropriation is rarely random; in most cases, the original meaning of the word is a metaphor for the new one. Our data is as remote as a cloud, for instance; catfish are just as tricky and unpredictable as an online love interest.
Anyway, this is all a very long way of saying that Dictionary.com’s 20th birthday is more interesting than most: To mark the occasion, the online dictionary has compiled a list of words whose meanings have changed since it launched two decades ago. To that list, we have added a few tech terms of our own: such as “troll” and “firehose.”
On one hand, the list shows how technology has shaped language over time. But it also shows how language has shaped technology — or, at least, our technological understandings and paradigms. Think about a term such as “cloud”: the fact that we picked that to describe cloud computing says a whole lot about how we viewed that technology when it was brand-new. Don’t even get me started on words such as “sandbox” and “canoe”…
Then: “to encounter something that is an obstacle or hindrance.” (source)
Now: “to move an online post or thread to the top of the reverse chronological list by adding a new comment or post to the thread.” (source)
Then: “to be placed in front of something, such as a road or path, so that people or things cannot pass through.” (source)
Now: to prevent someone from contacting you on a social network like Twitter, or from viewing your profile. (source)
Then: “a long narrow boat that is pointed at both ends and that is moved by a paddle with one blade.” (source)
Now: “a Twitter conversation that has picked up too many usernames for an actual conversation to take place.” (source)
Then: “a freshwater or marine fish with whiskerlike barbels around the mouth, typically bottom-dwelling.” (source)
Now: “a person who sets up a false personal profile on a social networking site for fraudulent or deceptive purposes.” (source)
Then: “a visible mass of particles of condensed vapor (as water or ice) suspended in the atmosphere of a planet (as the earth) or moon.” (source)
Now: “any of several parts of the Internet that allow online processing and storage of documents and data as well as electronic access to software and other resources.” (source)
Then: “to go or come after or behind someone or something; to pursue in an effort to overtake.” (source)
Now: to subscribe to someone’s updates on social media.
Then: “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” (source)
Now: “a cultural item in the form of an image, video, phrase, etc., that is spread via the Internet and often altered in a creative or humorous way.” (source)
Then: “a representation of something in outline; a concise biographical sketch.” (source)
Now: “the personal details, images, user statistics, social-media timeline, etc., that an individual creates and associates with a username or online account.” (source)
Then: “a low box filled with sand that children can play in.” (source)
Now: “an environment in which software developers or editors can create and test new content, separate from other content in the project.” (source)
Then: “a criticism or insult that is directed toward a particular person or group; a swinging movement of a person’s hand, an animal’s paw, etc.” (source)
Now: “to move the fingers across a touchscreen.” (source)
Then: “a table listing important events for successive years within a particular historical period.” (source)
Now: “a collection of online posts or updates associated with a specific social-media account, in reverse chronological order.” (source)
Then: “to disconnect something, such as a lamp or television from an electrical source or another device by removing its plug.” (source)
Now: “to refrain from using digital or electronic devices for a period of time.” (source)
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