Sunday, December 13, 2009


Where did all these words come from?
At Yahoo!, there is an internal mailing list called 'devel-random.'  This list receives hundreds of messages a week from Yahoo! employees, on topics ranging from technology to company politics to global politics, and is read by an equally diverse population, including developers, project managers, marketers, and both founders.

So when I took a Linguistics class from Stanford's CSP program, I decided to use a copy of this list's archives I had laying around: 8,000+ messages sent between January 31st and May 28th, 2008.  I sketched up a script in PHP that downloaded these emails out of my Exchange account, split them up into words, then threw out all the words that matched the GNU Aspell dictionary.  The rest of the words I reviewed using an AJAXy front end, throwing out obvious misspellings, proper nouns, and bits of URLs, but providing me with enough context from the original message to spot the diamonds in the rough.  What's left were interesting enough to get a class paper out of.

If you are a developer or an IT nerd (like me!) a few of these are going to seem old hat to you.  Several of them were already in off-the-beaten-path dictionaries like the Hacker's Dictionary or the Urban Dictionary at the time of my project.  But hopefully you'll find something new to you, or bent into a new use, or maybe just a better definition here that helps you communicate with your "normal" friends.

So, what was interesting?
I’ll break down the interesting words into three categories.  The first is jargon, words that add detail or speed up conversation in our areas of expertise.  The second are terms that I think have the potential to spread beyond technologists and into mainstream usage.  The third are words used when talking about the generic use of lower-case "google" to mean "searching the internet" without necessarily referring to the Google brand (which, as you might imagine, really pisses Yahoos off).

Dogfood (noun or verb) – This term has its origin in the expression “to eat our own dog food.”  In technology, this means “using our own products.” Dogfooding is, for programmers, a joyous milestone, because it means the product is usable -- at least by someone predisposed to see past the current bugs.  The term is also open to parody, since the expression literally means people are consuming something not fit for human consumption.

Mashup (noun), mashable (adjective) – Both these words came into my experience through the hack culture at Yahoo.  A mashup is an application that uses data or functionality from two existing applications, usually applications that you did not write and whose development you do not directly influence.  Douglas Crockford, a programming language architect at Yahoo, says “Mashups are the most interesting innovation in software development in decades.”   Mashable is a complement, meaning “lends itself to mashups.”

Spidered (verb) – Meaning “collected by a spider,” this usually comes up in context of things that search engines are capable of finding, as opposed to content that is deliberately or accidentally not visible to search engines.  Spider is a metaphorical term for the web crawlers that find content for inclusion in search engines.

Threadsafe (adjective) – A threadsafe program is one that is demonstrably error-free when several copies run simultaneously and share some resource, like memory. It is a fairly recent development for consumer-grade hardware to support this possibility, but it's not widely implemented in software.  Rasmus Lerdorf, creator of the PHP programming language has said "Most humans are simply not smart enough to write threadsafe code.

Migrated (verb, passive voice) – The interesting nuance that I credit to the technology industry is the passive voice usage.  In general usage, the person or animal that migrates is the actor; in technology a user can be migrated, without their involvement or consent, between technologies or products.

AJAXy (adjective) – This term stems from the programming trick “Asynchronous JavaScript and XML” that powers modern web tools like GMail and Flickr.  The adjective form can either mean “literally uses AJAX” or more figuratively “showy, especially but not necessarily by using AJAX.”

Freetard (noun) – Refers to someone who conflates free as in open source and free as in zero cost; a freetard undervalues other people’s work, and demands that everything delivered digitally cost zero dollars, regardless of whether the creator wishes to participate in open licensing or not.

GA'ed (adjective) – A "GA release" is the milestone that makes a product "Generally Available."  This form, pronounced “gee-ayd” effectively means “made generally available.” 

Folksonomy (noun) – A taxonomy built by users.  Usually this implies that a rigid hierarchy will not be imposed, and that one item may live in many categories.

Mainstream Potential
Betamaxes (noun) – Used as a general term for any dead end technology, especially technologies that had strong vendor backing, but were killed either by user preference or published content.  The term primarily applies in winner-take-all fields powered by network effects: as betamax slipped in popularity, the tapes weren't stocked in stores, which made consumers not want the players, which caused a negative feedback loop.

Frankensteined (verb) – To put something together out of existing parts, but with a strong pejorative tone.  Frankensteined has the added connotations of shoddy workmanship, poor performance, and unmaintainability.  (Contrast with mashup.)

Offlist (adverb) – Compounding of “off of the list.”  E.g., “I will reply offlist.”  I suspect it owes it’s shape by comparison to “off-the-record,” and it tends to be used in either the “I don’t want to bother the list with this” or the “I would rather keep this private from the list” sense.

Spim (noun) – Spam delivered by instant messenger instead of email.  This appears to be one of a series of refinements on the general term spam, which also includes spit (Spam over Internet Telephony) and bacn

Spamfighting (gerund) - The act of fighting spam, by comparison with firefighting.  I like that his gives a heroic nuance to the forces arrayed against spam.

Verbing Weirds Language
Verbiness (noun) – A measure of how well a noun lends itself to unambiguous verb conversion.  Yahoo is considered to have low verbiness, Google has high verbiness.  The jury is still out on the verbiness of "Bing."

Kleenexification (noun) – The transition through which a brand name comes to stand in for a generic activity or product.  Like betamaxes above, using this example to stand in for a whole class of activity evokes the whole lore of the specific example.

Genericize (verb) – To make something generic.  This also implies “to erode the claim to trademark.”

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