Over the last couple of decades, the Internet has slowly seeped into and transformed the everyday life of about half of the population on this planet. Its pervasive influence reaches also into the world of language. Understandably, such widespread technology reroutes some of language into its domain, much like its predecessors did. Of course, the spread of new terms is another side effect of a popular invention, for example, the introduction of “Hello” for the telephone. But today, we’ll focus more on the effect new technology has on existing words and how it can give some parts of the vocabulary a completely new meaning.
Clouds used to be the pleasant fluffy things you’d go outside to watch float across the sky with your children or young-minded friends. These days, when talking about “the cloud”, you’ll most likely mean the place you’ve stored your files for later use.
At least you can still combine the two meanings when working with your cloud-based files outdoors. This will obviously also shed some light on the origin of the new meaning for “cloud” – the metaphorical collection of something hanging in mid-air is exactly what your data are in the computer world.
The word “troll” used to bring to mind either the cute child-friendly playthings with the funky hair or the scary versions of these monsters hiding under bridges and kidnapping children. These days, the meaning has shifted to something even more terrifying. Much like their fairytale counterparts, Internet trolls are usually in hiding in the physical world, only to release their full malice and vitriol on any unsuspecting citizen who happens to cross their path online.
Not only changing from a noun to a verb (while it has been used as a verb since the 13th century, the usage never really caught on), “friend” has taken on a much wider meaning than before. Without having to make much of a commitment, you can collect “friends” on social media much like people in the old days used to collect stamps or postcards. And so “friend” has come to mean a wide selection of people starting with your closest confidants and ending with that person you went to 2nd grade with 20 years ago but who somehow managed to find you thanks to Facebook’s great algorithms.
You’ll also see how the qualifier “Facebook” can be added to denote the latter type of relationship. “Do I know Billy? Oh, no; we’re just Facebook-friends.”
While blocking before the Internet-age had to do with a physical boundary to movement or a solid piece of something, it has now taken on a more metaphorical meaning. The new meaning is obviously derived from the definition of blocking as an obstacle to something, but, these days, you’re less likely to stop someone from pulling up to their driveway and will probably simply impede them from viewing your online profile or contacting you on various social media sites.
Before we all logged on, Spam was simply a type of mysterious meat-like substance in a can, made famous by the eponymous Monty Python sketch, as seen below:
These days, however, spam is a less mysterious, yet more annoying, phenomenon, referring to the million or so emails of dubious quality you seem to be receiving daily. It actually started its life in the new meaning in the 1980s, when it started referring to the habit by some individuals to repeatedly paste the word “spam” in online discussion forums to clog up debate, inspired by the original sketch. These days, the meaning has spread even further than that but it seems we have early trolls to thank for bringing spam back to the public.
Viral used to refer to diseases and other maladies that are carried by a virus. A viral infection was something that would take you offline (so to speak) for a couple of days before you recovered. These days, the meaning has moved away from sickness and to something equally dangerous – ideas and media. Much like a virus, an idea or a piece of media can spread through a population quickly, leaving a path of destruction behind it. Yet, unlike a disease, this kind of viral seems to be something kids these days desire.
Before social media became the global phenomenon it is today, profiles were simply a particular representation of something – an outline drawn on paper or a description of someone. Now, the description part has become much more concrete, with accompanying pictures, “Likes”, and possibly a bio of around 250 words.
Conclusion – From friends to profiles, Internet changes speech
The way the printing press changed how we store information, the Internet is now changing how we consume it. With such a big shift happening in society, it’s no surprise this technology is also changing the meaning of a number of words as it goes along. While it can’t be said that the Internet is ruining them, it is certainly giving known terms a wider meaning.