Thursday 11 June 2009

Lexicography 2.0

The Global Language Monitor recently announced that, according to its calculations, the millionth word in the English language is Web 2.0 (web two point oh), a term popularized several years ago by Tim O'Reilly and friends as a way of describing the maturation of the World Wide Web from its humble text-on-screen beginnings to the interactive, community-driven, multimedia, all-encompassing behemoth that it has now become. This announcement is likely to provoke a lukewarm response from the general public, for whom the term is probably unfamiliar, and amongst web pioneers, who are getting excited about the semantic web (which enables computers to understand the meaning behind web content) and hoping to usher in the era of Web 3.0. And it provides yet another example (along with the language of search engines and mobile phones) of the challenge presented to lexicographers by the rapidly advancing world of technology. The transient nature of such words makes dictionary inclusion a difficult decision. In fact, Web 2.0 didn't make the cut for the recent edition of The Chambers Dictionary.

The term Web 2.0 pays homage to a popular method for naming different versions of software. Traditionally, developers use this numbering scheme to differentiate between minor and significant updates - a version ending in .0 is a completely new version, whereas other numbers represent more subtle improvements. Hence the choice of Web 2.0 rather than Web 1.1 to emphasize that this was a radically new way of thinking about the web. And so the 2.0 suffix joined the family of "e-"s, "i-"s and ""s in creating artefacts of the information age, as it became a somewhat popular way to describe any organization or entity that hopes to re-invent itself with a new, tech savvy identity. Reference has been made to Business 2.0, Government 2.0, Terror 2.0, Church 2.0 and Novel 2.0. But it’s often hard to pin down exactly what these terms mean. How does a book become eligible for the Novel 2.0 label? Could a film adaptation be considered a multimedia novel? Or if interactivity is key, what about "choose your own adventure" style books? At Chambers our concern is with Dictionary 2.0, as online dictionaries, open dictionaries and visual dictionaries provide new opportunities for people to engage with and contribute to the lexicon.

Adopting technical conventions for more conversational purposes is not a new practice. James Harkin's book Cyburbia, published by our friends at Little, Brown, drew my attention to how words like "feedback", "in the loop" and "switched on" were drafted into everyday language from the world of engineering in the middle of the 20th century. More recently, "offline" has been co-opted by businessmen where "taking something offline" means discussing it outside or after a meeting. I'm sure the reader will be able to think of many more examples from other sciences and disciplines, and the list will no doubt expand in years to come as dictionaries try to keep pace.

Even the designation by Global Language Monitor of "Web 2.0" as a word is another cause of lexicographical debate, given that it contains numbers, a space and a full stop. Loosening restrictions on what makes a word is something that we have to deal with 24-7. From the panic of Y2K to the potential of the G20, viewing things in 3-D and listening to MP3s, lexicographers better hope this all doesn't lead to some kind of catch-22 situation.

David Wark

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1 comment:

Terry Winders said...

Excellent point, we are on the cusp of great change.

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