The (Pre) Fix Is In

With Tecplot 10, what you've got is what you see

Illustration: Greg Mably

Slapping a prefix onto an existing term is probably the easiest way to coin a new word, and it's a linguistic tool that technologists aren't shy about using. This is particularly true when the neologism identifies something that differs in some specific quality from a preexisting thing. For example, many new technological inventions are electronic or online versions of familiar objects or services, so the innovations are easily named by tacking on one of the half dozen common technological prefixes: e- , cyber- , Net- , i- , info- , and techno-.

Unfortunately, it's so easy to use those prefixes that a movement against them has developed. The backlash has been going full throttle since the tech meltdown of 2000, but it began before that. For example, in their 1999 book, Wired Style (Broadway Books), authors Constance Hale and Jessie Scanlon pleaded for some restraint in their entry for the prefix e-, frequently seen attached to commerce , trading , cards , and so on: "Please, resist the urge to use this vowel-as-cliché."

The prefix cyber- fares no better, with Hale and Scanlon calling it "terminally overused." The use of the info- prefix is now so common that John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, writing in their 2000 book, The Social Life of Information (Harvard Business School Press), call this process "infoprefixation." And perhaps the death knell of techno- was sounded with the coinage of technosexual , a term for a male with a strong aesthetic sense and a love of technology, obviously derived from the ubiquitous metrosexual .

This anti-technology-prefix trend explains at least in part why many "real world" prefixes have become extremely popular. For example, consider the prefix bio- , which means "life" or "biology." In recent years, we've seen coinages such as biobreak (geek-speak for a trip to the bathroom); biohacker (a hobbyist who tinkers with DNA and other aspects of genetics); biometrics (the identification of an individual based on biological traits, such as fingerprints, iris patterns, and facial features); biopharming (using genetically modified plants to grow pharmaceuticals); and biopiracy (the patenting of plants, genes, and other biological products that are indigenous to a foreign country).

The German prefix über- , "super," has become übertrendy in the last few years. Here are some coinages I've seen in the tech arena: übercomputing , überdatabase , überengineer , übergeek , übernerd , überprogrammer , and übersoftware .

One of my favorite new prefixes is Franken- , which refers to something genetically modified, but in a bad way. This prefix was first used in the word Frankenfood , which entered the language in 1992 and now appears in some major dictionaries. Other Franken - words that have recently sprouted are Frankenbean , Frankencorn , Frankenfish , Frankenfruit , Frankenplant , Frankenrice , Frankensalmon , Frankentomato , and Frankentree .

Another oft-used prefix these days is eco- , short for "ecological" or "ecology," which has been in the language at least since the word ecosystem showed up in 1935. Other eco- coinages include ecoefficiency (the ability to manufacture goods efficiently and with as little effect on the environment as possible); ecotech (technology designed to alleviate environmental problems and reduce the use of natural resources); and global ecophagy (the potential destruction of life caused by rampant nanotechnological machines that break down organic matter to use as raw materials for replicating themselves).

Speaking of nanotechnology, nano- (one-billionth) is the prefix du jour for describing something as extremely small, having in the past couple of years replaced micro- (which had replaced mini- a while back). The nano- prefix is de rigueur for most new things in the nanotechnology sphere, of course, but this prefix is as ambitious as the science that spawned it.

We now hear talk of nanopublishing (an online publishing model that uses a scaled-down, inexpensive operation to reach a targeted audience, especially by using blogging techniques); nanofont (really small print in a contract); nanocorp (a business with just a few employees); Nano-Care (a trademarked technology that creates wrinkle-resistant and liquid-repelling pants); and even a nanosundae (an ice-cream treat on an edible spoon).

Just as nano- replaced micro- as a prefix standard, so too has hyper- replaced super- . Among many other examples, I've seen hyperdating (dating many different people in a short period of time, usually by meeting them online).

As we saw with e- and cyber- and the other older tech prefixes, backlashes form when word parts are used too promiscuously. The same will likely happen with the newer prefixes. It's already happening with nano- : with hundreds of products and dozens of company names jumping on the nanotech bandwagon, many people are starting to wonder if perhaps this prefix has had its day. Pico- (one-trillionth) appears poised to jump in as the new new thing in "very small" prefixes (witness, for example, the piconet , a small ad hoc network created when two or more Bluetooth-compatible devices recognize each other and communicate). If you want to stay ahead of this itsy-bitsy curve, I suggest going with femto- , which means "one-quadrillionth." Now, that is small.

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