New Networks Need New Insults

How the pajamahadeen went from heroes to milksops in a few quick years

3 min read

It is surely better a man should be abused than forgotten.

—Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)

As the terms iPod oblivion and laptop zombies from my December column suggest, we're living in the age of the technological insult. Social networks, smartphones, and other technologies have a way of promoting behavior that is off-the-wall, cringe-inducing, or plain old stupid. And the technologies themselves make it easier than ever to respond with a good zinger.

Mind you, I'm not saying this is a golden age of insults. That would be Shakespeare's time, when the Bard himself penned such gems as knotty-pated fool, bull's pizzle, and bolting-hutch of beastliness (to name only three from a single play, Henry IV, Part I). Or you could make a strong case for the eighteenth century, with the likes of Swift, Pope, Voltaire, and most notably, the great Samuel Johnson, who served up such snubs as blunderhead, fopdoodle, lackbrain, and slubberdegullion.

In our time, technology itself is often baked right into each brickbat. For example, if we stumble upon a luser (a blend of loser and user), someone who's out of touch or clueless, we might describe the poor sap as 404. That adjective comes from the Web-server error message "404 Not Found"—the Web equivalent of the classic description "not playing with a full deck." Thus it and similar insults are called fulldeckisms.

In this age of instantaneous transmission, the meaning of a new word can quickly change from positive to negative. Take pajamahadeen, for example. This blend of pajama and mujahideen (in the sense of "fighter") was coined in 2004 for the bloggers who proved that Dan Rather was fooled by forged documents when questioning the National Guard service of George W. Bush. A former CBS executive defended Rather by characterizing the typical blogger as "a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas." So in its early linguistic life the term was used, favorably, as a catchall term for bloggers who expose errors made by the traditional media. Within a few years, however, people were also using it to refer to those whose idea of activism is clicking their e-mail software's Forward button (presumably while wearing pajamas). Such folk are also denigrated as slacktivists.

If you wish to insult someone who can't even be bothered to rise to the level of slacktivism, call that person a meh-sayer. Meh (pronounced like the first syllable in medal or message) is an interjection, often accompanied by an actual or virtual shrug of the shoulders, used to signal that one is bored by, or apathetic or indifferent to, something.

Technology has been a big help when we need to slam people who are acting without thought or reflection. For example, someone who refuses to accept new ideas is said to have a ROM brain, while those who never create their own content are put in their place as read-only users. Recent coinages include robo-signer, a person who assents to a legal document without reading or understanding it; digi-necker, a driver who slows down to take a picture of an accident with a digital camera; fauxtographer, someone who manipulates images with software; and foreclosure mill, a law firm that processes foreclosures perfunctorily and without due diligence. (Each foreclosure is necessitated, no doubt, by the original purchase being run through an appraisal mill and then a mortgage mill.)

Modern mudslinging also takes aim at the Wikipedia kid, a student who has poor research skills and lacks the ability to think critically (probably because his research begins and ends on Wikipedia). No doubt he'll end up a freshmore, a second-year high school student who must repeat some or all of his first-year classes. If he's cute but also socially awkward, then feel free to describe him as adorkable.

You might be thinking that none of this vituperation quite rises to the level of, say, slubberdegullion, which Johnson defined as "a base, paltry, dirty, sorry, wretch." But these slights and smears feel right for the times, and we've embraced them as the postmodernists we are. Now my time is just about done, so I should take my leave before the insults start flying in my direction.

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions