language change and slang language technology

Found in translation

© CorbisHave you noticed how, in the past 10 years, a whole bunch of completely unrelated words have become totally interchangeable, all thanks to predictive texting?

Predictive texting is now a feature of pretty much every mobile phone on the market, and love it or hate it, we’re all exposed to it in one way or another. It struck me the other day, though, that as a result, many of us have developed quite a knack for ‘auto-translation’ – understanding what was actually meant, despite predictive texting producing something completely different.

Take, for example, a text I got the other day: ‘Don’t worry, I’ll post it out with her later’. Predictive texting had inserted ‘post’ instead of ‘sort’, but I immediately understood what it was meant to say, given the context of the conversation, and it was only a second later that I thought, hang on, that didn’t look right. And even when I looked back at it, it took me a minute to identify the error.

Just as our brains can fill in the gaps when words are missing or overlook errors because we know what should be there (the bane of the proof reader’s life!), it seems we can now automatically translate words that we know can be created by the same keystrokes on a mobile phone as the word we actually wanted.

Many of us (me included) probably experienced this for the first time when an older relative (usually a Mum!) started learning to text, but didn’t quite understand how to use predictive texting. So you received all sorts of weird and wonderful texts that took 20 minutes to decipher, like: ‘When you in on ink, ban you look nut for a 7th for the spare soon. Thanks, loud Nun’ (translation: ‘When you go on hol, can you look out for a rug for the spare room. Thanks, love Mum’).

Now, although most Mums have figured texting out (no more blank texts accidentally sent in reply to your messages!), it’s become second nature to ‘auto-translate’, because of the sheer volume of texts coming and going, and the fact that we all, at times, either don’t bother to read back what we’ve written before we hit ‘send’, or we see what we want it to say when we do. (Well, I say second nature – I’d still struggle with bits of that example – the ‘look nut’ and ‘7th’ would still throw me, though I think I’d probably get the rest.)

And it’s going even further than that – I remember a while ago seeing Stephen Fry interviewed, and he was talking about how his nephew used the word ‘book’ to mean ‘cool’, precisely because they are created from the same keystrokes on a mobile phone. Presumably, he and his mates got so many messages accidentally saying things were ‘really book’, that that gradually became the ‘in’ word to use. Or should that be the ‘go’ word?

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Sharon Creese


  • I have a ‘text name’ which I think is pretty great: Lagod. I think predictive text is oracle-like.

  • There are definitely some words that you auto-translate, but others can take real work to decipher. When my brother invited me round for “suicide” I was more than a little worried… (Quiche, in case you were stumped too!)

  • I can’t use predictive texting on my mobile phone because I tend to send messages in three – quite different – languages and it’s just too tedious to use the built-in dictionary. But I touch type and I know what happens when you move your fingers one key up. My code name is Lato (for those of you who don’t touch type = right hand one set of keys to the right).

  • I have to type one-handed, and whilst I’ve got pretty good at it. I do have a tendancy to mistype the ‘r’ in my name. I won’t post it here, but let’s just say that ‘Sharon’ becomes something very different if you swap the ‘r’ for one of the letters next to it…

  • My sister gets so many texts addressed to ‘drugs’ that she now actually signs herself as drugs! (Only on texts of course).

    Her real name is Esther – but thats not usually in the in-built dictionary.

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