Talk American

Sean Gullette
Originally Published in The Silicon Alley Reporter
November, 1998



American Etymologies ____________________________________________________________

"Sports, business, war--they all get talked about the same way." -- Sander Hicks, "The Breaking Light,"

"This web designer will possess the ability to take abstract concepts and turn them into cutting edge, corporate graphics that are web friendly, easy to navigate, satisfy branding requirements, communicate information architecture, and enhance user experience." --Job listing, 1998

"...a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators." --William Gibson, "Neuromancer"

("When you don't eat enough green vegetables, you get a little loopy." --My Dad)

Now, I could give a flying fuck for William Safire and his eternally raised neo-conservative eyebrows. Every Sunday, the Times' linguist laureate--Bill's hobbies include speaking at conventions and restoring Dick Nixon's place in history--writes as though Americans' continued refusal to speak OED English were grounds for martial law. Well, lick me, Sarge: American, like the human tongue, is a flavor-sensitive, flexible and torrid organ built for the ecstasy of communication, and there's nothing tastier than a mouthful of langue fondue from our hot dripping melting pot, with maybe an iced-Cold-CoCola.

As downright wrong as he is, Safire is correct about something: he who controls language controls history. Our offical idioms-- notably the ones too cliched for Safire to question--have consequences in the culture and in the psyche far beyond cocktail-party semantics. We are what we eat, particularly in the realm of rhetoric, where ideology and metaphysics are metabolized with every metaphor.

A sea-change washed over American English with World War 2. In 1940, regional American remained largely intact, and a Louisianan and a Vermonter might well have done some gawking and gesturing to share what they meant by "infare days" (honeymoon) or "Juneteenth" (Emancipation Day). A decade of newsreels, war headlines and television sets later, millions of people shared a nationalized hybrid vocabulary of military acronyms and radio jargon; TV show catchphrases, and presidential propaganda metaphors. Everyone knew, or though they knew, what a Jerry, a Jap Zero, a Cattle Car, a $64,000 question, an A-4, a B-52 and a V-2 were.

There's no way to prove it, but the trickle-down effect of American English's post-war jingoistic confusion was a Cold War's worth of Sunday Afternoon Football-inspired foreign policy and Hail Mary corporate quarterbacking. All this new jargon was such fun that America barely noticed a new world order being established, and survived in bliessful ignorance the romantic idea of a nuclear bomb being a sort of grand-slam home run.

By 1969, the Cajun, the Yankee and the Lovechild now had V-6 engines, V-8 juice, and "bomb shelters," but the terms "nuclear winter," "radioactive half-life," or "mutually assured destruction" were not as yet classified for public use. That year--leap with me--the Department of Defense wired together Arpnet, a new kind of information machine borne of punchcard dreams and atomic nightmares, which would insure that even if the other team hit a homer, we would still have our computer files because, incredibly--like, um, an electron, or the leadership of a Maoist cell!--they'd always be in more than one place at one time. It would take 30 years for the true nature of this paradigm shift to sink in.

Then, one morning in the early 1990s, Rip Van Windows woke up and the Internet was there. The reconditioned idioms of this handy and undemanding medium seemed easy enough to pick up--"virus, digital information, feeback, network." The encrypted metaphysics which came with the new codes were not . Do these words simply describe the components of a new world, or are they, in fact, the DNA from which one will be born?

It would be more than a little naive to believe that the complex dynamics that exist between 1) words (signifiers) 2) the things they refer to (signifieds) and 3) the people using them has gotten simpler in the Age of Information. It seems more likely that "Cyberspace" is the ultimate colony of the Empire of Signs. What appears to be a technical language in fact has the semiotic attributes of a philosophy: there are no visible or tangible signifieds for all these signifiers. There is no Space or Time there.

This language describes an invisible world; its etymology leads down through sedimentary layers of code: the Olde English of programmer slang, the Sanksrits of C, Fortran, and Cobol, and the white sands of binary data.

As the Internet enters its adolescence, and begins to respond to the competing influences of money, sex and the desire for freedom, the true meanings these words are being formed in our mouths and before our eyes. Like reverse anthopologists, excavating our own futures, we have only begun to uncover the civilization who spoke this strange language, and to name the ghosts they believed in.