Words with Changed Meanings (Thanks to Technology): Part 1

By Rosy Callejas

Every new advancement ushers in an era of cultural change, and few aspects of culture are as quick to adapt as language. With the onset of the Digital Age, many already-established terms have taken on new and interesting meanings. Here’s a quick look at some words with drastically different definitions than they might have had a few decades ago.

When King James II first visited the recently completed architectural masterpiece known as St. Paul’s Cathedral in the 1600s, he was overwhelmed. He described the cathedral in these terms:

“Amusing, awful, and artificial.”

King James’s words were high praise in his day. The cathedral made him happy (amusing), filled him with awe (awful), and was a complete work of art (artificial). It’s hard to imagine an architect being pleased with such a review in the 21st Century.

The English language is not, nor has ever been, static. Instead, it’s a dynamic and ever-changing entity. In the 1300s, the word “girl” meant a small child of either gender. “Dapper” once meant heavy-set. “Truck” used to denote trade goods used for bartering. And when was the last time you heard someone use the term “literally” to mean anything other than “figuratively?”

The introduction of the Internet has advanced this evolution of language, and we as a society now have an entire lexicon of Internet co-opted terms with vastly different meanings than they would have held only a few decades ago. Here are ten of our favorite new word meanings built upon the forgotten husks of the old meanings:

Company names

1. Google
We might as well start with the big one. Many readers may not even know that the term “google” has ever been used to reference anything other than the search engine. However, back in the late 1990s, when Larry Page and Sergey Brin were considering names for their Internet startup company, they decided upon the seldom-used term “googol,” which is a number that consists of a one followed by 100 zeros. They were thinking big: Google now operates over a million servers throughout the world, and processes over 20 Petabytes of user data every day. It has also become one of those terms that is both a proper noun and a verb, like Xerox before it — usually very good news for a brand.

2. Tinder
Tinder is a word that means “dry, flammable substance that can be used for lighting fires.” It’s kindling — arrange it under larger logs in a fire pit, set a match to it, and in a few minutes you’ve got a roaring campfire. This is likely the image that Sean Rad and Justin Mateen wanted to convey when they founded their mobile matchmaking application. Tinder (the app), launched in 2012 and set the dating scene on fire. According to the New York Times, over a billion Tinder profiles are viewed every day. In addition to its Boy Scout-ish original meaning, the word can also invoke the idea of “tender,” (as pointed out by one of the company’s co-founders), another word association that the app is happy to acknowledge.

3. Amazon
To the ancient Greeks, the word “Amazon” denoted a skilled race of mythical female warriors. That term was later adopted to describe a river in South America, after a party led by European explorer Francisco de Orellana was attacked by groups of female natives along its banks. So, given its interesting history, how has Amazon come to be adopted as the name of a company that began by selling books out of a garage?

Well, it didn’t start out as such. The first name that founder Jeff Bezos wanted to use was “Cadabra”, as in “abracadabra”, which sounded a bit too much like “cadaver,” which was not the image that the organization was going for. They eventually settled on Amazon because it’s the largest river in the world, and Bezos wanted to convey that sense of scope to his target demographic.

4. Salesforce
The best company names are often the ones that have double meanings. Salesforce plays on the idea of your sales department, as well as the pun on strength that the wordplay implies. The trend has changed since the 1980s and previously, when we used to call employees a “workforce” or a “salesforce.” Now we use the term “talent,” so Salesforce’s moniker has a bit of kitsch to it, as well.

5. Nest
“Nest it” is what you may soon hear a spouse say into the phone on your commute home: He or she will be speaking code to make sure the remote thermostat is set so the house is toasty when everyone arrives home from work. By producing home thermostats that can learn user habits and modify schedules accordingly, Nest Labs may soon have replaced the mental image of a bird’s nest with one of a user-friendly temperature regulation device.

Nerd speak

1. Meme
The term “meme” was originally coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976, and addressed the method by which cultural information is shared between groups and individuals. Of course, outside of a few select circles, the term itself wasn’t widely known — until it went viral. Now, we refer to a “meme” as a photo or graphic that has potential to go viral on the Internet.

The word “spam” came into existence back in 1937, when the brother of a Hormel Foods Corporation executive suggested it as a name for a new canned-meat product. But why call it ”spam”? Theories abound — ranging from those claiming that the term is a portmanteau of the words “spiced” and “ham,” to the suggestion that it is really an acronym for the phrase Shoulders of Pork And Ham (SPAM). Hormel Foods won’t give a definitive answer. The term has had a few lives, first as a food product, and next as the product of a Monty Python comedy skit.

Because of this connotation — that spam is unwanted and yet found in everything, and because early Internet users would sometimes flood message boards with the word “SPAM” typed out over and over again in order to force other conversations off of the board, it eventually became associated with annoying and unwanted communications.

These days, spam refers to impersonal (and potentially virus-ridden) emails that have a tendency to fill user inboxes. Still, despite the unflattering association, canned-Spam is still selling very well — especially overseas.

3. Tag
The meaning of the word “tag” has evolved from a game played by children and an identifying marker for an object, to now “tagging” or marking an article, social media post, or a website with specific keywords to help identify it. Considering 38% of children age 8–12 regularly use Facebook, maybe the term has come around full circle.

4. Flame
Back in the day, the Rat Pack called it a “roast,” but these days, if you put someone down, particularly on the Internet, you’re “flaming” them. The term was defined in 1983, believe it or not, in the book The Hacker’s Dictionary.

5. Troll
A troll can be an ugly, mean-spirited monster, which is probably why the term has caught on so quickly online — it perfectly describes the kind of person who would intentionally try to aggravate others for entertainment on the Internet. Troll has come to describe not only those who practice this behavior, but also the act itself (i.e. “The troll was visiting the forums in order to troll new users”). On the other hand, some mistakenly assign the moniker of “troll” to anyone who expresses a conflicting opinion. All in all, the modern usage of the word isn’t too far removed from the original Norwegian term, except that in place of the trolls who used to sit under bridges, you’ll now find trolls practicing their craft on message boards.

Naturally, there are more where that came from. In part two of this blog series, we’ll be covering Internet terms and tools.

Originally published at www.salesforce.com.

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