Words in the Wind

A grab bag of terms floating in the techno-ether.

The tech sector is a marvelous linguistic factory that ships out truckloads of new words and phrases every year. In this month's column, I'll introduce you to a sampling of new terms that have crossed my path in recent months.

Photo: Jo Tyler

Many new tech terms appear alongside recently invented gadgets and ideas and are used to name or describe these inventions. For example, when Dmitry O. Gorodnichy, a computer vision scientist with the National Research Council of Canada in Ottawa, invented a system that enables a person to control a mouse pointer by moving his or her nose, he also invented an appropriately whimsical new word to name it: the nouse. Similarly, when Yahoo Mail did a survey of e-mail users not long ago, they found that people were incredibly anxious about the whole e-mail thing. They not only fretted over crafting appropriate replies, but they were also often stressed out by inbox expectations--waiting impatiently for replies from other people. Yahoo Mail called this anxiety PPMT--Pre and Post Mail Tension.

I mentioned back in August 2004 ["The (Pre) Fix Is In"] that the prefix nano- was all the rage, particularly with company names. Unfortunately, many of these companies have nothing to do with nanotechnology and are using the prefix only because it's trendy, and trendy technologies often generate investor interest. The good news is that we now have a term for these non-nano firms: nanopretenders.

However, even those companies that truly operate on the nanoscale are bothersome to Eric Drexler, the chairman of the Foresight Institute and popularizer of the word nanotechnology, which he used originally to describe just molecular manufacturing. So Drexler has suggested a new term for this process: zettatechnology. That may sound strange, since the prefix zetta- denotes one sextillion, or 1021, a huge number, but Drexler reasons that one sextillion is approximately the number of distinct atomic parts that would be in a product manufactured at the molecular level.

Other tech terms seem to come in bunches, particularly when some phenomenon is getting a lot of media attention. A perfect example is the idea of offshoring, sending work to an overseas location. That term isn't new (it has been around since at least the 1970s), but it became a big story in 2004 when people realized that not only manufacturing jobs were being moved overseas, but tech jobs in such areas as programming and systems analysis were also offshorable (that adjective is new).

As offshoring accelerated, it became more sophisticated, and so did the language. For example, some companies practiced nearshoring, moving jobs to a nearby foreign country. Firms that wanted to keep feet in both camps resorted to twoshoring, using an offshore location and a domestic one. CEOs who preferred to distribute their work eggs across several national baskets came up with multishoring, sending outsourced work to a number of overseas locations.

Some of them actually took the time and resources to find the optimum mix of jobs performed locally and jobs moved to foreign countries, a practice called rightshoring. Of course, just as one country's brain drain is another's brain gain, so, too, do some foreign companies add to or expand upon their operations in the United States, a phenomenon called onshoring.

Speaking of linguistic trendiness, have you noticed that there are a lot of "factors" running around the tech community these days? I'm talking about the sense of the word that means "an element that contributes to or influences the result of something." This sense has been in the language for a couple of hundred years, but it's only in the last few decades that it has taken up residence as part of such familiar phrases as human factor and risk factor.

These days, for example, we hear people talk about the wife acceptance factor (or WAF). In an object, especially an electronic device, that normally appeals only to men, this refers to the features added to the object that allegedly make it acceptable to women. Such devices also come under the influence of the nag factor, which is the degree to which parents' purchasing decisions are based on being nagged by their children. (This is also called kidfluence or pester power.)

Certain segments of the online world have to deal with the gak factor, the tendency for online pornography sites to lose business when credit card charges are discovered by a third party (such as a parent or a spouse) and then disavowed by the subscriber. (Presumably the "gak" part comes from the noise the third party emits after making this unpleasant discovery.)

As this modest collection shows, the tech sector's language factory is still operating at full capacity. At least the manufacture of new words is one job that's definitely not offshorable.

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