The English language is a flexible creation. It changes over time. New words come into being and old words disappear into obscurity. The power and reach of the internet have accelerated the process of creating and spreading new words (and old words with new meanings) far and wide across the globe.
Here are some of our favorite words popularized by the internet and the proliferation of technology. Their origins may be murky sometimes, but they perfectly sum up the inventiveness of people online and the way new terms can spread in a connected world.
Let’s start at the beginning. The word “internet” dates back to the early 1970s. It describes the vast network of computers, websites, and technology that now lets us send tweets, buy items online, and spend way too much time on Facebook. Other terms (like “information superhighway”) have tried to encompass what the internet does, but the short, simple “internet” is what stuck.
In 2011, the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a pared down version of the great-grandaddy Oxford English Dictionary, recognized “woot” as a word. “Woot” is usually used as a joyful outburst, an exclamation of enthusiasm. The word’s origin as internet slang is murky, but it seemed to first emerge in the 1990s. A popular deal-of-the-day site even used the word for its name. Woot.com was later purchased by Amazon.
The word “noob” entered the Concise Oxford Dictionary in the same year as “woot.” It refers to a new person who doesn’t know what he or she is doing. It often appears in reference to gaming or for computing activities. The word derives from the term newbie and is sometimes spelled as “newb” or “n00b” with two zeroes, particularly in the gaming world.
Love them or hate them, selfies seem like they’re here to stay on the internet. The word became so popular that the Oxford English Dictionaries declared it the word of the year in 2013. The Oxford definition is “A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media.” That’s a concise summary of a surprisingly divisive concept. Some people think selfies are exercises in narcissism, while others see them as a vehicle for self-expression.
The hashtag symbol (#) has been around for a long time, but it was better known as a pound sign or number sign. According to Oxford Dictionaries, the term “hash” likely “arose as an alteration of ‘hatch,’ originally in the phrase ‘hatch mark.’” It was already being used in computing contexts as far back as 1961. “Hashtag” refers to that hash mark with the addition of words or phrases (not separated by spaces) used to highlight certain subject matters. This is particularly popular on the social media site Twitter where #hashtags are #usedallthetime.
Spam is not just the name of a canned meat product, it’s the popular term for unwanted emails. It originates with a famous Monty Python comedy sketch where the oddball denizens of a cafe shout out the word repeatedly. It first became connected to technology in the 1980s, but really blossomed as an internet term when it became associated with undesirable advertising emails. It’s a much more evocative term than “junk mail.” It’s a good thing we have effective spam filters that keep most of it out of our inboxes.
A bit of trivia: Hormel’s canned Spam first debuted in 1937. The food company won’t reveal exactly what the name means, but the brother of a Hormel Foods vice president won a naming contest and collected $100 for coming up with the unusual word. Hormel hints it could stand for “spiced ham,” but won’t confirm the rumor.
If you thought the shorthand term “OMG” (Oh My God) was a new invention, then you might have missed the news about it popping up in a 1917 letter to Winston Churchill. That was well before the internet age kicked in, but its use was definitely popularized with the wide adoption of text messaging. The problem with text messages is that you sometimes need to convey a lot of information with just a few characters. “OMG” fits the bill as an exclamation that doesn’t take up much space.
Back before tablets and smartphones, there was no need for a term like “phablet,” which references very large-screened phones that verge on being the size of small tablet computers. The word is a simple combination of “phone” and “tablet” and it became very popular with the introduction of big phones like the Samsung Galaxy Note in 2011. “Phablet” may be fading, though. Large phones are no longer looked at as being highly unusual. It will be interesting to see if the word has staying power in the long run.