Techspeak for Evil

MalwareThe information age has produced something of a dialect.  Techspeak (if you want to call it that) has a vast trove of unique vocabulary, its own grammatical and syntactical rules, and represents a very real culture.  And I am fascinated by an interesting subset of its vocabulary:  words used to describe evil presences on the internet.

I mention this because it’s been a difficult week for blogging.  A wave of DDos attacks hit WordPress just before the weekend (I’ll explain what “DDos” means below).  Then, just yesterday, another of these attacks hit my web host. Rrrrrrgggh.

Since I’m in webmaster hell, I might as well have a barbecue. While I don’t typically discuss etymology, I’ll make an exception today. Here is a look at some words we use to describe the scary things on the internet, and where these terms come from.

Virus: The oldest of “e-villainy” words.  This word dates back to at least the early 1970s, although the concept of a malicious computer program was posited by computer godfather John Von Neumann in the 1940s.  It’s one of the most brilliant tech words in history, emphasizing the terrifying similarity between computers and living things.

Cyberterrorism: This is an uncreative blanket term referring to all malicious attempts to wreak havoc on the internet.  This word has been on the rise in recent years, probably because “terrorism” makes people take things a little more seriously.  And cyberterrorism is getting to be a serious problem.

Malware: Similar to a virus, Malware refers to a piece of software that infiltrates computers or softwares without consent.  It dates from the ’90’s and I’d love to know who created it.  I like the deft use of the prefix “mal-” — it’s a cut above your typically unimaginative piece of tech jargon.

DDoS: A Distributed Denial of Service attack is usually an attempt to overload a server with thousands of hits to slow down its system.  Like I said, I got hammered with a few of these in the past few days.  DDos isn’t the most interesting acronym.  What about calling it a “party crasher?”  It’s basically the equivalent of some guy who’s mad at you showing up to your party uninvited with a bunch of his drunk, belligerent buddies.

419: Ever received an email about how a Nigerian prince has $800,000,000 and will give you a cut if you “would be so kind wire money order to him?”  This is a 419 Scam, referring to the part of the Nigerian criminal code that deals with internet con-artistry.  Interestingly, the term denotes a kind of urban pride in Nigeria (akin to how rappers will mention their area codes in songs–only more evil, obviously).

Spam: This word is so ubiquitous that I almost forgot to list it.  Spam, if you’ve been living on Jupiter, refers to the emails you get from strangers promimising to make your bank account and certain appendages larger.  Unlike most tech words, this one has a very specific etymology–it dates back to a discussion among usenet users in 1993.  I’m not sure why it shares a name with a vile meat by-product, but it’s pretty appropriate.

Troll: This word refers to ugly creatures who live under bridges and terrorize people.  Oh, and it also refers to some kind of mythical creature.  Har har har.  Seriously, though, this is another borrowed word that’s just perfect: it describes the kind of people who hang around on blogs to stir up trouble with incendiary comments.  Believe it or not, this usage didn’t begin with the internet: the usage of “to troll” to mean “to bait” predates Shakespeare!

Weasel Words: I love this one, a term specific to Wikipedia.  A weasel word is a way of making an unverified statement without it appearing as such.  For example “Some people think …” or “It has been suggested that …”  As in “it has been suggested that 99% of linguistics-related pages on Wikipedia are full of lies.”

-bait:  This is one of the internet’s most widespread productive suffixes.  It usually refers to “baiting” somebody to get some kind of reaction out of them.  “Tweetbait,” for example, is when you tweet somebody with a lot of Twitter followers in the hope they will respond to you. I suppose the natural end to this would be “Obamabait:” tweeting the president to get him to tweet you back (which would increase your number of followers, indeed).

Apologies for the slightly off-topic post here. My frustration at the internet Gods is ebbing. I’ll get back to “caught-cot mergers” and “labiodental r’s” soon enough!


About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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6 Responses to Techspeak for Evil

  1. Prin says:

    Spam (Monty Python): "Spam" is a popular Monty Python sketch, first televised in 1970. In the sketch, two customers are in a greasy spoon café trying to order a breakfast from a menu that includes the processed meat product in almost every dish. The term spam (in electronic communication, and general slang) is derived from this sketch.

  2. Aaron Bauman says:

    Can you elaborate on the grammatical and syntactical rules of Techspeak that promote it from jargon to dialect?

    • trawicks says:

      So here’s my opinion about this, which is really kooky, and which you are welcome to discard as insanity. Because sometimes I have some ridiculous philosophical notions. So “opinion” is the operative word here!

      Jargon is usually used to describe the terminology applied to a particular activity or job. A car, for example. There are all kinds of words used to describe mantaining or driving a car: sprockets, horespower, etc. Just like there are types of terminology to describe baking, or fishing, or accounting.

      What I think elevates “techspeak” (or whatever word works better) above “jargon” is that at the heart of modern technology (i.e. computers) is a variety of very real (albeit artificial) languages: C++, HTML, PHP, Perl, CSS, etc. Just because these languages were not a product of evolution doesn’t make them any less real.

      When we humans describe anything related to computers or technology, then, we are speaking in a language which is a certain number of degrees divorced from a more specific programming language (or languages).

      At the one end of this spectrum would be a room of insanely focused software engineers who rattle off lines of C++ to each other as if they were ordering coffee. At the other end of this spectrum would be somebody’s grandmother asking how she can indent a paragraph on Microsoft Word: what grandma is actually describing is a shorthand term for a more specific piece of code that describes the action of indenting.

      What I’ve described, then, in some way mirrors the linguistic concept of a “dialect continuum.” At one end, you have a unique language (C++ or whatnot), at the other end of the spectrum you have plain English (“How do I indent this, Morty!”), and in between a number of “dialects” that incorporate components of the two.

      That’s a roundabout way of answering your question. To sum up, because programming/computer languages have a complex set of rules, I believe there are a number of “mirror languages,” so to speak, which have emerged to translate these languages into human terms.

      • Dan says:

        Your theory is interesting but I’m not sure I buy it.

        I’m about as intense a C++ coder as you will find, but when I’m in the office we will never, ever “rattle off lines of C++ to each other”. Not because we don’t all know the language, but because the domain of the language is almost completely separate from the domain we’re in, even when we’re talking about operating computers. In written conversation it is also generally set off, a textual artifact that might as well be a photograph for the degree to which it flows into the language of discourse.

        If anything, HTML syntax is more likely to flow into language. You will definitely see people making up pseudo-linguistic tags like or . It’s just the syntax, though — nobody ever says anything like “it was really of you to say that” or “have a day”. Not even in jest.

        So I would claim that techspeak as such really is primarily a jargon.

        Lolcats and other Internet memes, now that’s another matter…

        • Dan says:

          Ha ha, my HTML markup examples got screwed up. Read this, but mentally replace the curly braces with angle brackets:

          “If anything, HTML syntax is more likely to flow into language. You will definitely see people making up pseudo-linguistic tags like {snarky} or {wishful-thinking}. It’s just the syntax, though — nobody ever says anything like “it was really {b} of you to say that” or “have a {sup} day”. Not even in jest.”

        • trawicks says:

          To be fair, I’m not sure I completely buy my own theory either! To be clear, though, I don’t mean to suggest there is an ACTUAL office full of supergeeks who talk in code, I’m only positing that it’s possible. In my opinion, it doesn’t really matter that these languages are not truly spoken by humans. Only that they ARE languages.