Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Speeding Language Change

Not all that long ago I wrote a Good Word, fish, in which I railed against the spelling of the new meaning, fishing for identity information, as phish, with an tastelessly ungrammatical PH instead of F. I predicted that it would go the way of the dinosaurs rather quickly.

In fact, I find myself more and more using the term ‘nonce word’, a word used in a particular time and place that isn’t a word at other times and places. However, the nonce words I write about do not seem to go away but rather spread throughout the English-speaking world. Lexical atrocities like phat, phish, homophobe (for homosexophobe), as well as made-up words like dongle and chad, on top of legitimate words like multitask, boot up, google, logon are crowding our mental lexicons and the general lexicon of the English language.

But why are the bad nonce words like phish surviving? The reason, I am now surmising, is the Internet.

My experience with nonce words comes from pre-Internet times, when words had to pass keenly language-sensitive editors and get into print before being widely accepted. The Internet brought a radical change in the way we build vocabulary. Today, everyone on line is a publisher and everyone is connected to everyone else. New words, whether rightly constructed or not, spread like wildfire, leaving readers with the impression that all new words are legitimate.

Words that are not constructed by the rules of English grammar are added to the English lexicon every day because they are published every day; they are conveyed to millions of readers in an instant. They differ from grammatically constructed words, though, in that they must be wholly memorized without any mnemonics to help them. Were we to call phishing, say, identity theft, as many already do, there is little additional load to memory. The first time a speaker hears phish, however, identity theft must be explained and they are left with the question of why the word is misspelled.

Having to memorize a dozen new words a year creates no problem, but a dozen a week or even a month is problematic. The Internet has produced a prodigious task for our brains, learning the meanings of and memorizing far more words than were demanded of us in the past. Even words we know are not English words are forced upon us willy-nilly and we must memorize them.

So what does this mean to speakers of English? It could lead to a process of dialectalization in which different groups have different vocabularies. Since the sheer number of new words are too great for everyone to remember and the difficulty in learning and remembering them is greater than necessary, we may divide into groups that know differing partial vocabularies. That would be a long way off, however. In the meantime, it simply means that we will have more and more difficulty understanding each other as some of us learn one set of words and others, other sets.

3 Responses to “Speeding Language Change”

  1. Stargzer Says:

    Just as fishing is not always the catching of fish (just ask any fisherman who’s been skunked”), Phishing is not Identity Theft per se; Identity Theft is the result of someone’s falling for the bait in a phishing scam. The Cambridge International Dictionary defines it as:

    phishing noun
    /ˈfɪʃɪŋ/ n [U]
    an attempt to trick someone who has an internet bank account into giving information that would allow someone else to take money out of the account
    phisher noun
    /ˈfɪʃ.ər/ (US) /-ɚ/ n [C]

    Notice the word “attempt.”

    Wikipedia says:

    A phishing technique was described in detail in 1987, and the first recorded use of the term “phishing” was made in 1996. The term is a variant of fishing, probably influenced by phreaking, and alludes to baits used to “catch” financial information and passwords.

    Wikipedia references this Language Log article ( ) from another distinguished Pennsylvania Institution of Learning:

    ” …The basic etymology is simple and obvious — the scammers are “fishing” for gullible customers. The orthographic substitution of ph for f is by analogy to “phone phreaking”. I suspect that the band Phish may have been inspired to use the same f-to-ph substitution by the same analogy, but I haven’t been able to confirm this. …”

    (Researching “phone phreaking” is left as an exercise to the reader. Hint: Look up Captain Crunch)

    Phishing can target any usefull information, not just bank account information. A User’s computer ID and password can be usee to mount an attack on the user’s computer and network, which in turn can lead to theft of thousands or millions of pieces of identity information (Social Security Numbers, credit card numbers, and so forth).

    Carrying the analogy further, just as Phishing is analagous to fishing, i. e., the use of bait to catch any Phish (fish) which is dumb enough to take the bait, Spear Phishing is analagous to spear fishing, i. e., targeting a particular Phish (fish). Spear Phishing involves an attack directed to a specific individual, say, a higher-level executive whose computer access rights may allow him access to higher levels of the network or applications. For instance, a higher-ranking executive may have the authority to transfer much larger sums of of money than an underling or a private individual. Spear Phishing obviously involves a bit of “social engineering,” in that the targets are identified in advance and the Phishing scam is customized to appeal to them. This type of target is often clueless as to security, and poses a greater risk to the organization.

  2. ian Says:

    In England the word Nonce , in case you didn’t know- is prison slang for a friend of the guards.. or more generally a homosexual

  3. Carol Says:

    Really, the internet is more likely to cause dialect leveling, because it allows more people to talk to each other. Dialects are formed when groups of speakers are isolated from each other. When they become isolated from the “standard” (this is all relative) their speech is no longer in sync with the speech of the standard language, and when they make changes, their speech starts to diverge from the “standard”.
    Could the internet cause specialized groups to come up with new vocabulary that is hard for a layperson to understand? Of course, but how easily can you understand scientific or legal jargon?
    Embrace language change! There’s no stopping it!

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