Wonderful web words

I’m writing three short columns for the Quercus Blog this month, based on my latest book 50 Digital Ideas You Really Need to Know. The first, reproduced below, is about one of my pet net concerns: digital etymologies, and the weirdly wonderful trove of web words out there. You can read the other columns as they appear on the Quercus site.

Until its first use in emails in 1971, the @ symbol was an obscure object used to indicate pricing levels in accounting. Since then, it has become one of the world’s most widely-used symbols, and has gathered a bewildering and colourful variety of different descriptions in different languages.

While in English it is simply called the “at sign,” others are more poetic: in Italy, it is chiocciola “the snail,” thanks to its shape.

In Finnish it is thought to look more like a curled-up cat (miukumauku) while in Russian the language leans towards a dog (sobaka). The Chinese sometimes call it xiao laoshu, or “little mouse.” But perhaps most colourful of all is the German interpretation: Klammeraffe, or “spider-monkey.”

Still more eccentric is the story of Apple’s “command” key, marked by a square with looped corners, or ⌘.

Known properly as the Saint John’s Arms, it’s an ancient, knot-like heraldic symbol, dating back in Scandinavia to at least 1000BC, where it was used to ward against spirits and bad luck.

It’s still found today on Swedish maps, representing places of historical interest, thanks to its (approximate) resemblance to the tower of a castle viewed from above. To many modern Mac users, though, it’s simply “the command squiggle” or “splodge”.

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, old terms have found new homes. Hypertext Markup Language, or HTML, is the bread and butter of the web itself. Yet both the word “markup” itself and many of the most common terms in online markup languages date back not to the first days of digital technology, but to a far earlier transformation: the birth of printing.

Printing with movable type first appeared in Europe in the 15th century, and was a laborious process that usually involved hand-written manuscripts being “marked up” with instructions to the printer as to how they should be presented on the page: which words should be in bold, italics, headings, underlined, or set out separately.

Several of these printer’s terms survive to this day online: from the abbreviation “em” signalling “emphasis” (type in italics) to the use of the tag “strong” to signal bold type. Technological times change fast – but words have their own momentum.

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