not-quite-virgin birth

[estimated reading time 6 minutes]

with all the talk lately about the death of language — at least, the death of language as we know it — because nobody on the internet knows how to use english properly anymore, i thought it might be good to see the other side of that coin. the internet is where new language is born every day. but just because silly new words are being created by the makers on youtube and instacelebs on tiktok doesn’t mean that’s where this story begins. i think we need to look much more distantly into the past and explore the origins of a word you might not think of as either new or novel at all. online.

like many english words, online is a word that was created for a specific purpose that didn’t really exist before — and didn’t exist in any other language. if you’re not up on your history of english, english is a relatively-new language. it developed as the result of popular modifications to old german being fused with already-arcane court-french spoken by the upper-class members of english society at the time. the combination was a language with a mashup of french and german vocabulary, heavy on the french, with mostly-german grammar simplified to eliminate the majority of the complex relationship and case structure. because people were simply too uneducated to function with it anyway. french pronunciation was germanicized and spelling was somewhat-standardized, mostly relying on old spellings in either french or german. this created the disaster we now know of as modern english, though it’s gradually improving and becoming more streamlined. give it another century or two and it will be as advanced as modern mandarin chinese. i hope.

back to online, though. let’s talk about how the internet was born and why the word simply had to exist.

before the internet became a real thing, there was what was known as the “advanced research projects agency network” — arpanet for short. it connected military installations across america with a few select research universities and it was all the awesomes at once. we’ve skipped a step from the language perspective, though. network isn’t really a word that makes any sense out of context. but it’s not a computer term — at least it didn’t start that way.

we use nets to catch things. mostly fish. from the beginnings of the time of settled agriculture quite a few thousand years ago during the neolithic revolution (you know — when farming became a thing and people stopped following mammoth tracks and hunting wild cattle). you make a net by taking something loosely-approximating string and tying knots in it in a grid pattern. now you can get a fish to go in one side and not come out the other. i believe they call this dinner. i’m against killing things. passionately against it. so i don’t do this to fish. though i’m a fan of using this technique on disruptive humans, especially those of the anti-education, populist persuasion. but that’s another story.

the word “work” may strike you as having something to do with a job but in old times it actually didn’t carry that meaning at all. it had a significance far closer to the words “how” and “way”. it was how something was done. “woodwork” was how you worked with wood. it’s loosely-equivalent to the suffix “ware” now that gets tacked onto things like “lacquerware” or “silverware” as in “the form of”. so “network” meant anything that was connected in the manner of a net. simple. interconnectedness — if you don’t know the story of indra’s net, you should read it. it’s one of the basic principles of buddhist thought and logic. but again we are off-topic — something i’m rather known for.

back to arpanet. normal people couldn’t connect to it. actually, nobody could connect to it. it wasn’t a thing you joined. it was an infrastructure project. joining arpanet was like having your own onramp directly to the interstate from your living-room. so people didn’t have that. not to mention personal computers weren’t really a thing yet so there was nothing to “connect”, anyway. that came in time, though. when the first non-terminal personal computers like the ibm pc, the commodore pet and 64 and the apple ii started to get popular, people suddenly didn’t just have computers — they knew people who had computers. instead of talking like normal people on their rotary-dial phones and by throwing paper-airplanes (yes this was the seventies), they wanted their computers to talk. on the phone. like (you know) normal people, as if such a thing existed as the world woke into the eighties. i’m a child of the eighties if that wasn’t already obvious.

but computers — especially computers then — didn’t speak. they used binary to communicate. this binary information had to be converted to sound to go over the phone-lines. that process was called “modulation”. on one end, the computer modulated the information and it became sound — the squealing you heard on phone-lines if you were also a child of the eighties, i have no doubt. if you’re younger but still remember fax machines it’s probably much the same sound, though fax machines use a different kind of system to make it happen and it’s much more rudimentary. the computer on the other end demodulated the sound back into usable binary data. at first this was done using actual telephone handsets connected to boxes on the computers but those devices became standalone things plugged directly to the phone lines and we stopped calling them “modulator-demodulators” and shortened it to mo/dem — eventually modem. a new word was indeed born.

but it didn’t stop there. computers could talk directly to each other and that was great. then bulletin-board services (bbs) began to be common where a centralized computer collected information and others connected to it. it wasn’t just peer-to-peer but distributed and this was a huge step in the direction of what would eventually become the generalized internet. but again we’ve skipped something. a word. internet. that’s the “network of interconnected computers” or the “interconnected-network” or the … “inter-net”, for short. which became the internet, a single word. not just the birth of a new idea but a whole new way of looking at language. words that were once separate became joined then new words without their separation even being recognized. this is a process that’s happened in english (and other languages) for centuries (though not as long as you might think) but it’s been happening so fast in english the last few decades it often just goes straight from separate words through the mashup stage to the creation of a new word in a single leap and words jump out of youtube preformed — youtube, tiktok and instagram aren’t just social media giants. they’re newly-created words using this method. as are facebook and linkedin. but not twitter. that’s not just a stupid word. it’s a stupid idea. thankfully it’s gradually dying. let’s get back to language.

as the internet grew in popularity, more and more regular people wanted to connect to it. mostly for porn. but email and cat pictures were already rather popular. and other criminal things. not that cat pictures are criminal. but they’re like catnip. get you hooked and suddenly you’re pirating music and playing poker online and sharing… well, sharing those things you shouldn’t be sharing. which isn’t good.

how did they connect? they connected their modems (new word) to the phone-lines and connected to internet-service-providers (isp) where they piggybacked on hardwired connections to the distributed global network. it was actually relatively simple. still is, just scaled-up. the question, though, was whether you were connected. but if you asked someone “are you connected to the internet?” it was cumbersome, long and non-specific. they could take that to mean “now?” or “ever?”. and that’s not useful to anyone. the idea of being connected wasn’t “always-on” but “do you connect to the internet to do stuff?” — if the answer was “yes” you were “on the line”. you connected to the lines between the “nodes” of the international network using the “line” from your house to the phone company. so you were on two different kinds of line. “on-line”, you could say. or, in time, online.

now online means something a little less divergent, of course. because everyone’s there, connected all the time. and nobody really asks if you’re online anyway because the assumption is that you’re one of two things — connected to the internet or dead. and if you’re dead you’re probably not having much of a conversation about technology with anyone and the answer is even more obvious. if you’re talking about network connectivity in your mediumship experiences you may need something from your life i can’t provide in an article.

but i hope that’s somewhat useful in understanding both connectivity (in the vague and historically-nonspecific sense) and the birth of new words in modern english. thanks for taking the time to explore the past of language with me yet again.

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.