The 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!