German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote in 1921, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. A century later, with technology advancing at breakneck speed and pushing back the limits of what’s possible, a lot of new or repurposed vocabulary is required to help us relate to our tech reality.

As there’s no official institution in English with the mission of prescribing the rules of grammar or what words are accepted, new tech terms come up spontaneously on social media and in tech environments such as Silicon Valley. Some of these become widely used, while others are quickly forgotten. There are creative new acronyms, such as ‘UX’ (User Experience), and old words like ‘tweet’ that are given a new meaning. Other words like ‘telecommuting’ (working online remotely) combine existing words in a new way. Playfulness and convenience are key. Let’s take a closer look at a few more.

1. open-collar workers

Even before the pandemic, many workers were exploiting the possibilities offered by communication technology to work remotely. English already had the expression ‘blue-collar worker’ to describe someone in a manual job, and ‘white collar worker’ for someone with an office-based job; traditionally, factory workers wore blue work overalls while office workers wore white shirts. Now, ‘open-collar worker’ has been added, to describe someone who works online from home. Open-collar implies being informally dressed, without a tie. Fortunately, not many of us are expected to put on a business suit and tie to work remotely from our kitchen table.

2. digital nomad

Having a good job doesn’t have to mean being tied to one location any more. Open-collar workers might decide that instead of working from home, they’re going to work digitally and travel at the same time —a 21st-century nomadic experience. The stereotype of a ‘digital nomad’ is a twenty-something who works on their laptop from hipster cafes. But digital nomads can be any age and many are finding that being employed by a company based in a country with high wages, such as the US, while travelling around countries with a low cost of living, can be lucrative.

3. phishing

This word, coined in English in the mid-1990s and now adopted into most languages describes the practice of trying to trick people into sharing personal details such as bank codes online. This is usually done by sending a fraudulent email or text message that appears to be from a legitimate source, such as a bank or government agency. Phishing is about ‘fishing’ for information. So why is it spelt with a ‘ph’ and not an ‘f’? The ‘ph’ is probably inspired by a word from the 1970s, ‘phreak’ (phone + freak), used to describe people who hacked into the phone system so that they could make free calls.

4. spam

Like ‘phishing’, the English word ‘spam’ has been adopted all over the world to describe unsolicited emails that are sent to lots of people, often for marketing. But the word ‘SPAM’ dates back to 1937, and a brand of tinned processed meat. Throughout the Second World War and the austere years that followed when fresh meat was hard to find, SPAM was a common common sight on dinner tables across the US and UK. Even into the 1970s, spam fritters (spam fried in batter) were regularly served up to children in school cafeterias. Most people who have experienced SPAM will understand why spam is such an appropriate name for unwanted junk mail.

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5. zk-SNARK

The nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark (1875-1876), is about a mission to find a fantastical, indescribable, and potentially dangerous creature known as the Snark. It was written by Lewis Carroll, who also wrote the Alice in Wonderland books. Now, nearly a century and a half later, there are new snarks to be hunted, this time through the curious world of cryptocurrency, In case you didn’t know, ‘zk-SNARK’ is an acronym for ‘Zero-Knowledge Succinct Non-Interactive Argument of Knowledge’. In very basic terms, a ‘zk-SNARK’ enables people involved in cryptocurrency transactions to prove to another person that a statement is true without having to reveal what that statement is. For most of us, explaining a ‘zk-SNARK’ in any more detail than that would be even harder than describing Carroll’s indescribable original.

6. disruptive

Being disruptive (causing a disturbance) used to be seen as negative, even anti-social behaviour. But then, a few years ago, being ‘disruptive’ in business, especially through the use of technology, became cool and about ignoring the old rules of the market. Startups like Uber and Cabify claimed to have ‘disrupted’ the established taxi industry, using technology to connect people looking for a taxi ride with car owners looking to make some cash. In a similar way Airbnb ‘disrupted’ the hotel industry. Critics, however, would claim that companies like these may be disruptive in the old negative sense of the word, too.