The language of technology – the jargon, the buzzwords – has begun to infect daily speech. We talk about ‘taking things offline’, ‘downloading to each other’, ‘rebooting our days’. The word ‘hashtag’ has become a new exclamation mark. We talk about ‘pinging each other’ as an alternative to calling or emailing. I’m calling this new dialect ‘Pinglish’.
I first came across ‘Pinglish’ in the late 1990s on a journey in a hot car with my kids. The air conditioning wasn’t working well, so I was ‘augmenting’ it with a slightly-open driver’s window. I’ve never been a car geek, but this old Ford had a button which prevented the back seat windows from being opened from the back seat. As the temperature rose, the kids, frustrated by their lack of control, wailed, “Dad! Can you PLEASE undelete the windows?!”
Pinglish is my word for the invasion of English by terms that were born (and might best remain) in tech companies, in the IT dept or in chat about apps or hardware.
‘Ping’ is a good example. It’s the noise that a phone or a laptop makes when something arrives. On the train to work yesterday, the carriage was filled with the pings of WhatsApp messages arriving. But now it has a wider meaning. ‘Ping’ has become a word that means ‘contact’, e.g., ‘Ping me later’. (Footnote: In Australia, in the 1970s, pre-swearing kids (they existed then) used to say ‘Ping off’ to people they were fed up with.)
Bandwidth – ‘I don’t have the bandwidth’ is now a common way of describing our inability to cope with the volume of demands on us.
Download – This has come to describe pouring out all the detail. For example, ‘I’m away for two weeks from Friday. Can we meet at 4pm so that I can download?‘
Reboot – This is now synonymous with wishing to restart something that isn’t going well, as in ‘Train didn’t show up and I spilt my latte on my Kindle. I’m going to reboot the day.’
USB – this one’s a bit rare, but I have been in at least two meetings in which someone has confused USB and USP. So I guess this only counts as a malapropism or maybe malware.
Hashtag – People say things like ‘Am off to the Green Man festival this weekend, hashtag excited’. It has become a punctuation mark that in speech doesn’t require a shift in tone of voice, which is interesting slash unique I think.
Taking things offline – This used to mean removing something from a site so that it could no longer be downloaded or disconnecting from the WWW / Internet / Network. It now can mean ‘having a debate or discussion in a more private context.’
UI (user interface) – This has started to be used as a way of describing someone’s approachability and attractiveness, as in ‘he’s got a great UI’.
Default setting – This is used to describe someone’s tendency, as in ‘Polly’s default setting is to be positive.’
Slash – A separator in URLs that is used in speech to link something and a subsidiary.
Going off grid – This means going quiet, not looking at emails, not responding to messages, etc. It can also mean ‘going somewhere where there is no network coverage.’
Hack – This, which I guess means ‘gaining unauthorised access’ in tech, has come to mean ‘bringing change’ or ‘making something more efficient’, e.g., ‘Here’s a great life hack for getting the most out of your toothpaste tube.’ In a way, it is the modern replacement for the Innovations Catalogue, often the best ad supplement in the Sunday papers back in the 90s. The Innovations Catalogue used to feature things like ‘Fitover’ sunglasses, massive sunglasses that you could wear on top of your specs, or slippers with headlights to wear if you need to get up in the night.
I’ve seen this phenomenon working the other way. Prior to 1985 in offices, the only windows were things you looked out of. Then Bill Gates came along and borrowed the word for his software. Some years ago I spent time working with a tech company that was a competitor of Microsoft’s. Such was their mania that they refused to call the windows in the building ‘windows’, preferring instead to call them ‘outdoor awareness panels’.
Of course it’s not uncommon for a current industrial preoccupation to infuse the language. Look at the car industry and its impact.
We use ‘driving forward’, ‘reverse gear’, ‘putting the brakes on’, ‘looking under the bonnet’, ‘back seat driver’ and many more in everyday speech.
What is interesting is the nuance. Until fairly recently, ‘let’s rewind slightly’ was a common way of describing (in a VCR or cassette way) moving back to an earlier part of a discussion. Now we have ‘let’s scroll back’ which is more of a touchscreen phrase.
Each significant release of new technology is also a cue for lexicographers to prick their ears. Language is fluid and organic, but in one sense it is also manufactured.
Several of these examples have come from friends on Twitter, including Brown Bowler Hat, Annabel Giles, Tiffany Markman, George Harvey Bone, Gerard Lee, Marketing Gremlin and Ben Davis. Hashtag grateful.
If you can think of any other examples, please ping me at @HamishMThompson.