June 27, 2000
When the Geeks Get Snide
Computer Slang Scoffs at Wetware (the
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
couch potatoes become "mouse potatoes," as
teenagers become "screenagers," the once lowly
geek has become a cultural icon, studied by the fashionistas
of Seventh Avenue and the Nasdaq watchers of Wall Street
alike. And as geek chic takes hold of the
technology-obsessed culture, geek-speak seeps into everyday
Most people now know that "viruses" aren't just
germs spread from person to person but malicious programs
that can spread overnight from one computer to millions of
others around the world. "Spam" is no longer a ham
product but a form of computer junk-mail; "toast"
refers not to a breakfast choice but to a state of being
dead or burned out; and "cookies" aren't
fattening, chocolate-chip-studded snacks but tiny files
containing information about our computers that can be used
by advertisers to track users' online interests and tastes.
Earlier technological developments left their mark on the
language. The railroads gave rise to expressions like
"going off the rails" and "getting
sidetracked"; the steam engine produced "working
up a head of steam" and "full steam ahead";
and the automobile left us with "pedal to the
metal," "firing on all cylinders" and "eatin'
concrete." Not surprisingly, phrases generated by the
computer age tend to be more sardonic and pejorative. "Blamestorming"
refers to group discussions devoted to the assignment of
blame; the acronym "kiss" means "keep it
simple stupid"; and "ego-surfing" alludes to
Internet searches for one's own name.
So what does cyberslang say about the digerati and the
brave new world? As collections of slang found in books like
"Jargon Watch" (assembled by Gareth Branwyn), The
New Hacker's Dictionary (compiled by Eric S. Raymond) and
"Cyberspeak" (by Andy Ihnatko), as well as a host
of online slang sites (most notably The Microsoft Lexicon,
Netlingo and The Ultimate Silicon Valley Slang Page) readily
attest, geek-speak conjures up a chilly, utilitarian world
in which people are equated with machines and social
Cyberland has been heavily influenced by pop culture and
it boasts its share of counterculture phrases drawn from
comic books, children's stories, sci-fi movies and New Age
movements. "Deep magic" (meaning "an
awesomely arcane technique central to a program or
system") comes from C. S. Lewis's "Narnia"
books; the online abbreviation TTFN (meaning "ta-ta for
now") comes from "Winnie the Pooh"; and
"fear and loathing" (meaning the state of mind
"inspired by the prospect of dealing with certain
real-world systems and standards that are totally
brain-damaged but ubiquitous") comes, of course, from
Hunter S. Thompson.
world with an acronym for `Fear, Uncertainty and
E-mail abbreviations like "4-ever" and "2B
or not 2B" sound like outtakes from a Prince song,
while emoticons (those sideways smiley faces like :-) used
to indicate a user's feelings) summon visions of Hello-Kitty
But for all its playful love of puns and cool disdain for
"suits," the high-tech world is, at heart, a
cruel, unforgiving place ruled by the merciless dynamics of
the marketplace. There are multiple terms for success
(including "winnage," "winnitude,"
having an "Elvis year," being "golden"
or "on velvet") and an equally large number of
terms for failure ("lossage," "lossity,"
"Big Lose") and stupidity. As the former Wired
writer Paulina Borsook points out in her new book "Cyberselfish,"
the digital community is increasingly a world that mirrors
our "winner-take-all, casino society," a community
that projects the attitude I've got mine (or certainly
intend to if the bureaucrats don't get in my way)," so
you don't matter.
In the looking glass world of high tech, writers and
artists are known as "content providers," and a
"showstopper" refers not to a thrilling tour de
force but, as The Microsoft Lexicon notes, to "a
function, object or issue important enough to jeopardize a
ship date or schedule" -- in other words, "a
really big bug." "Evil" doesn't have a moral
connotation in cyberland but indicates something
"sufficiently mal-designed as to be not worth the
bother of dealing with." And "elite" suggests
something pirated or stolen.
Cyberland's politics are libertarian, as Ms. Borsook
observes; and its presiding muse is Ayn Rand. This is a
world with an acronym for "Fear, Uncertainty and
Doubt" (FUD) and another for "Waste of Money,
Brains and Time" (Wombat), a Nietzschean world in which
leaders are known as "wizards" or "net.gods,"
and followers are dismissed as "sheeple." Calling
someone a "404" (from the World Wide Web error
message, "404 Not Found") means he is clueless or
has a high "bozon count," while accusing him of
being a "BDU" means he's a "Big Dumb
What venerated "alpha geeks" and lowly "smurfs"
share is a tendency to talk about people as if they were
machines. To be "uninstalled" means being fired or
dismissed, whereas a "plug-and-play" refers to a
new employee who fits in without any additional training.
Doing a "bit flip" means undergoing a disturbing
personality change; indulging in "nonlinear
behavior" (NLB) means acting irrationally; possessing
huge "bandwidth" means having lots of talent or
A "bio-break" refers to a trip to the bathroom,
and "client/server action" refers to sex. Stress
puppies "ramp up" to cope with added work and
"batmobile" -- by putting up defensive emotional
shields -- when threatened with unwanted intimacy.
Such language tends to ratify the unflattering stereotype
of the computer geek, described in The New Hacker's
Dictionary as "withdrawn, relationally incompetent,
sexually frustrated and desperately unhappy when not
submerged in his or her craft." And while that book's
editor, Eric Raymond, observes that such stereotypes are
"far less common than mainstream folkore" would
have it, he adds that "hackers have relatively little
ability to identify emotionally with other people," so
accustomed are they to spending hours and hours at the
It is a view echoed by Ms. Borsook, who writes that
techies are uncomfortable "with squishy stuff and the
intangible and that which can't be reduced to formulae"
Indeed geek-speak is flush with disparaging or defensive
references to the real world and flesh-and-blood human
beings. The nonvirtual world, so much messier than the one
on line, is derogatorily referred to as a "carbon
community" or "meatspace." Individuals who
aren't online are shrugged off as PONA's ("persons of
no account"); printed magazines and newspapers, as
"treeware" or "dead tree editions."
"Analog" is an adjective used to refer to things
in the "real world" (defined in "Cyberspeak,"
as "that which cannot be accessed via a
keyboard"), but it's also used to describe things that
are sloppy or graceless.
For geeks who prefer "text sex" to physical
encounters, e-mail to "facemail," e-commerce to
"bricks and mortar" shopping, the human body is
nothing but "wetware" -- a fragile, inefficient
alternative to the shiny hardware of their computers.
This outlook, Mark Dery notes in his book "Escape
Velocity," is reflected in those cyberpunk stories in
which the human mind is downloaded into computers and thus
liberated from "meat-jail," and cyborgs herald a
future in which the body is redefined as a "warmblooded
This cybertopian world would eliminate "PEBCAK"
(tech support shorthand for "Problem Exists Between
Chair And Keyboard"), but then it would also eliminate
"meatbots" -- or human beings, as they are still