Virtual Words: Language on the edge of science and technology

by Jonathon Keats (Oxford University Press, 2010): 192pp, ISBN 978 0 195 39854 0.

Reviewed by Nancy Boston

First of all, what this book is not. It's not a dictionary of neologisms, nor is it a 'How to sound cool when talking to boffins and whiz kids' guide.

Instead it's a thoughtful series of essays by the author of the monthly 'Jargon Watch' column in Wired magazine, exploring how new words come into being, why some persist and others fall into oblivion, and how the adoption of a new term not only reflects the perceptions of those at the cutting edge of science and technology but also subliminally shapes future developments.

Much to savour

Although the book is of particular interest to those with a scientific or computing background, there's much to savour for anyone who delights in the sound and structure of words, from poets to crossword aficionados. It's a book to be dipped into at random rather than being read in one go, or used for reference. Although it's loosely divided into six sections – Discovery, Innovation, Commentary, Promotion, Slang, and Neologisms – these may appear to overlap and, in fact, often do.

I particularly enjoyed the chapters dealing with 'copernicum' and why this name was chosen for the 112th element, why 'spam' (which arose spontaneously out of a geeky devotion to Monty Python) is now ubiquitous but 'bacn' is defunct, and why 'twitter' and 'tweet' are so apposite but 'flog' (a fake blog with a hidden – usually commercial – agenda) isn't.


The 'Slang' section is especially enlightening, giving a historical perspective on how, when and why such words as 'mashup', 'k' (a contraction of the already concise 'OK'), 'w00t' and (my favourite) 'plutoed' came into being. The final words of the last essay – on 'panglish' – sum it up: 'In language, supply and demand are mutually reinforcing. Language is richer when it is freely circulated.'

Not an essential book, but certainly an entertaining and thought-provoking one.

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