Here’s an amusing artifact from the late 20th century: Jargon Watch: A Pocket Dictionary for the Jitterati, by Gareth Branwyn. Published in 1997, it’s a collection of words that originally appeared in Wired magazine’s popular (and continuing) Jargon Watch feature.
This little dictionary, sturdily bound in chipboard*, captures a fascinating cultural moment when, as the Introduction puts it, “the boundaries between jargon and slang” were “smudged,” and “accelerated cross-pollination” between jargon and slang was occurring “through newsgroups, email, BBSes, Web pages, and trade shows.” To keep up, you needed a pocket-size reference book like Jargon Watch.
Let me set the scene. When the book was published in 1997, Wired was just four years old. The Web as we know it was almost as youthful: Netscape Navigator, then the big name in browsers, was just three years old. There was no Google, no Facebook, no Flickr, no Wikipedia, no YouTube, no Twitter. Mobile phones were rare. There were just a handful of blogs. (Blogger, the first blogging software for non-techies, was founded in 1999.)
So what were the trendy terms between May 1993 and December 1996, the period captured in the book?
I’ll start with the handful of words and phrases that have survived: astroturfing (cited in the book as “astroturf campaign”), barfogenesis, bio break, brain fart, cybrarian, data mining, drill down, facetime**, going postal, hive mind, permalancer***, quants, road rage, Silicon Alley, trolling, Webmaster, and YMMV.
Then there are the rest of the words, the linguistic curios and white elephants that remind or enlighten us about the demands, annoyances, and fixations of that not-so-long-ago era, the mid-1990s. Here are some of my favorites:
America Off-Line. “The new nickname for AOL as it struggles to keep up with constant growth spurts and as system slowdown reaches an all-time high.” AOL—now known as Aol.—is a dominant theme in Jargon Watch.
Barney page. “Web page designed to capitalize on a trend (such as Barney bashing). “Have you seen all the macarena Barney pages?” The macarena was a dance fad, children. Barney the purple cartoon dinosaur was introduced in 1992 and is still around.
Beeper sitting and beepilepsy. The first meant “to assume responsibility for recording all incoming pages and encoded messages for a vacationing or otherwise out-of-range friend who owns a beeper.” The second described “the brief seizure people sometimes have when their beeper goes off (especially in vibrator mode).” You’ll have to Google “beeper” yourself.
Bitnik. “Someone who uses a public, coin-operated computer terminal to log onto the Internet.” One of seven “bit” words in the dictionary, all of them obsolete as far as I can tell.
Disk dancers. “People, usually teenagers, who use the free AOL disks given away in magazines and via direct mail to hop from one free account or another, never having to pay to be online.” AOL! Disks! Those were the days.
Graybar land. “The place one goes while staring at a computer that’s slowly processing something (watching the gray progress bar crawl across the screen).” Computers were slow back then.
Kevork. “[After Jack Kevorkian.] To kill something.” The 2011 version is the Kardash, a 72-day unit of time equal to the length of Kim Kardashian’s wedding. (In 14 years, I'm betting this reference will seem as bizarre as “Kevork.”)
NASCII. “Porno images rendered in simple text (ASCII).”
Nooksurfer. “Someone who frequents only one or two newsgroups or BBS topics, or just logs on to answer email, never daring to venture out into the big waters of the Net.” A Nook surfer in 2011 would be a different creature altogether.
Nyetscape. “Nickname for AOL’s less-than-full-featured Web browser.” Again with the AOL.
Port-per-pillow. “The goal of some universities to get network connections into the bedrooms of every student on campus.” Mission accomplished.
Pseudophone. “A pay phone that looks like a real RBOC phone but is owned by a smaller phone company that charges exorbitant fees for long-distance calls.” RBOC = Regional Bell Operating Company. Raise your hand if you can remember the last time you used a pay phone.
Siliwood. “Short for ‘Silicon Hollywood,’ the coming convergence of movies, interactive television, and computers.” Jargon Watch says this term has “become very popular since appearing in the magazine,” but I’ve never heard it.
Umfriend. “A sexual relation of dubious standing. ‘This is Dale, my … um … friend….’”
Many thanks to friend Suzanne Mantell, who buys and sells used and rare books, for the gift of Jargon Watch!
* A note on the typography in Jargon Watch: the quirky display type, with its sprockety Os and double-crossed Ts, is from a font called FF Letter Gothic, designed in 1996 by Susanna Dulkinys. Here’s the current version of the font, updated in 1999.
** Before it was a capitalized and intercapped iPhone feature, facetime just meant “spending time in person with someone mainly known online.”
*** I heard this one from a prospective client just last week.