Shakespeare’s Netymology

January 18, 2018  |  Laureen Hudson

One of the coolest things about editing in the tech space, for a word nerd like me, is that the language is brand-new, ad-hoc, and usually made up on the fly by an engineer or security researcher frantically trying to communicate a new idea without saying something like, “and then the thing happens…”

The technical term for a word entirely new to the language, describing a previously undescribed event, generated by a subject matter expert in that field, is a protologism. In other fields, like literary criticism, sociology, and politics — places that, frankly, move slower than we do — a word can remain a protologism for years while people debate and consider, before finally accepting it, and it becomes a neologism. Neologisms are words that have been widely adopted, and where the initial source can be pretty readily ascertained.

Because technical editors and technical writers are also looking for ways to describe that thing that happens, we tend to be early adopters of protologisms, and move words along the spectrum to neologisms as fast as we upgrade the technology itself. As Shakespeare said in Henry V, “We, my dear, are the makers of fashion.” We also are the greatest generators of new language since Shakespeare (who added something around 2,000 words in a veritable Renaissance for the English language as it existed then). And because our teams tend to be highly diverse, made up of people from all over the world, the words we generate in tech tend to be words that can be plugged in across languages – they’re not unique to any particular language, and tend to resist translation. They end up being naturalized, or transliterated, rather than strictly translated. These transliterations end up being generated often through TAP, or Think-Aloud Protocol, which is another beautiful thing technology processes has given the world (most of us call it “muttering to ourselves.”)

There’s even a tech-specific word for what this article is about: netymology; the origin and derivation of technical terms.

When you’re in the business of creating software that addresses newly-developing online threats, the terminology practically generates itself. A quick stroll through AlienVault’s  Open Threat Exchange® (OTX™) will show you all kinds of words that have never been defined.

And it’s my job to get those into a glossary for you.

It works like this: Attacker (not hacker, for the love of all things fluffy) attacks. Researchers discover. Pulse gets written. I read the pulses, identify the “…and then the thing happens” terms, research to see where along the protologism > neologism spectrum it falls by seeing if anyone anywhere else is talking about the word, and how they are talking about them, create a definition, and drop that into the glossary that then gets used in the documentation.

I’m pretty serious about clear, easy to understand documentation. I think that we, who eat and sleep and breathe new technology, owe it to the users who aren’t in the room where the “…and then the thing happens” moments occur, to make those language evolutions as clear as possible, as understandable as possible. InfoSec and good security habits are critical to everyone’s safety in this world (Alec Muffett proved that back in 1990 with Crack), and people don’t adopt what they don’t understand. It’s on us to bridge that gap, and not only create software that people can use to protect themselves digitally, but also to give them the language we’ve created, so they can understand.

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