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Tech talk

I sat down with a programmer the other day who was showing me how to use a new text annotation tool. His first instruction to me was, “Open a shell.” Not being a mollusk, nor carrying one with me, I was briefly flummoxed. But not wanting to appear completely clueless, I said: “Do I have that on my computer?” It turned out that I didn’t because he was talking about a particular shell, or more fully a shell program: one that acts as a command interface to the operating system or in this case, to another computer of which my computer was a client. We downloaded and installed the required shell and then we were off, safely ensconced inside it.

Shell is an example of a word pattern that can be observed throughout the lexicon of computer technology and the Internet: the majority of words for new concepts, functions, and objects that get firmly established are not neologisms; they’re new senses of old words, and the words we like best for newfangled and unfamiliar things are well-known, familiar words that are not very far removed from physical objects, sense data, and our bodies. Shell is a simple, old, but semantically rich word; we know what shells look like and feel like, and we know how they function in relation to the things they contain. As the Wikipedia article on shell programs puts it, “the name shell originates from shells being an outer layer of interface between the user and the internals of the operating system (the kernel).

There’s another such word, kernel. It was originally a diminutive of corn and both these words have been around since the beginnings of English. Kernel is a great word for designating the innermost part of something, just as it designates the innermost part of a grain. In a technical setting, kernel telescopes the function of a computer’s internal workings without getting into complicated and confusing details about what they actually are or do. The metaphorical power of kernel tells us what we need to know in most technical contexts in which the word is used.

A glance at this Unix/Linux command cheat sheet provides some examples of computer technology’s predilection for terms connected with our bodies and things we can do with them: touch, head, tail, dig, and finger are all commands that provide an immediate and intuitive connection with what the commands actually achieve when directed at data. Another benefit of such commands is that they provide easy understanding of the function of commands to learners of English, who would be unfamiliar with words that were not part of basic vocabulary.

A Unix function exemplified on the cheat sheet but not described there is the one called pipe, which you can see on the lower left of the page, under “Searching.” You get pipe in Unix by typing the vertical bar, |, which not only looks like a pipe but acts like a pipe: it provides a conduit for the output of one command to serve as the input of another. This is not the only application of pipe in computer technology; pipe is also an informal term for an Internet connection. Here are a couple of examples from online discussions:

The ISP is paying the Telco for a full T1 pipe that is private (i.e. not shared by anyone else).

I’d like to use the DSL pipe to connect to the internet and channel it thru the router.

Cable connections have a pipe to the Internet that is shared with others in your area.

Earlier this year Mike Pope, a technical writer and editor at Microsoft, explored some similar ground in his essay New Devices, New Gestures, in which he talks about the ways in which people interact with touch screens and how these activities are described. He notes, in discussing such terms tap, pinch, swipe, and stretch, “A great thing about this terminology is that from the user’s point of view, it doesn’t actually need much defining.” Having devoted considerable effort to mastering the basics of English, whether as native speakers or learners, we get the benefit of being able to grasp new and sometimes difficult concepts intuitively when they are named in a way that connects the things we know with the things we don’t know.

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Orin Hargraves


  • […] Tech talk, un intervento apparso due giorni fa in Macmillan Dictionary Blog, afferma che la maggioranza dei termini informatici che in inglese descrivono nuove funzionalità e oggetti destinati ad avere una grande diffusione non sono nuove parole ma nuovi significati attribuiti a parole esistenti. Sottolinea inoltre che le  parole comuni associabili ad oggetti fisici, al corpo umano e alle sue azioni e i suoi sensi sono quelle preferite per designare concetti altrimenti non familiari. […]

  • I am an Italian terminologist who has been working in the IT field for over 20 years. I agree that terminologization, “the process of metaphorical extension of a general-language notion to a more precise concept within a special language domain” is a very creative way of using existing lexical items to identify new concepts. However, metaphors that are very effective when used within a specialized field might not be equally successful when they migrate into general language, as shown by a recent survey that found that only 16% of Americans understand the tech meaning of cloud. Semantic neologism based on secondary meanings or on imperfect analogies can result in limited transparency, especially for non-native speakers. If indeterminacy is present in English, it might be further emphasised when terminology is transferred into another language by means of secondary term formation.

    Interestingly, the Microsoft Manual of Style advises software developers and technical writers against terminologization: “If you must create a new term, verify that the term that you select is not already in use to mean something else. Regardless of audience, avoid giving specific technical meaning to common English words. Even if new terms are well grounded in the everyday definition of a word, those reading your content may not be attuned to the subtleties of meaning that underlie such terms, and they may try to make sense of the material by using the common definition”. The Microsoft Manual of Style also suggests that anthropomorphism should be avoided because metaphors associated to the human body and its action are not always interpreted as intended by users from different cultures – for example, Italian speakers understand but tend to reject metaphors associated with living beings, their features or actions and prefer loanwords instead.

    [ terminologization definition from The Handbook of Terminology Management, Vol 2, edited by Sue Ellen Wright and Gerhard Budin]

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