November 12th isn't a public holiday, but perhaps it should be. On this day in 1990, a memorandum was produced by the English physicist Tim Berners-Lee and the Belgian computer scientist Robert Cailliau while working for CERN in Geneva. Entitled "WorldWideWeb: Proposal for a HyperText Project," it might not have seemed so earth-shattering at the time. But it set into motion the Age of the Web: it's hard to overestimate the impact this document has had on our chronically wired culture — and on our language.

The title alone had a huge linguistic influence. Though the word hypertext had been around for a while (it's widely attributed to Ted Nelson, in a 1965 paper he presented at the Association for Computing Machinery), the first word of the title was something brand-new. Berners-Lee and Cailliau dubbed their project WorldWideWeb, fusing three common words into one alliterative mashup. The single-word, internally capitalized style (sometimes known as CamelCase) didn't stick around, but the three-word version World Wide Web took off like gangbusters, along with the information technology itself.

World Wide Web eventually got shortened in two primary ways: first, as the ubiquitous three-letter initialism www — though it's not exactly "shortened" if you pronounce it with nine syllables as "double-u double-u double-u." Douglas Adams once remarked that "The World Wide Web is the only thing I know of whose shortened form takes three times longer to say than what it's short for." (There are various other possible pronunciations listed on this Wikipedia page: for instance, dub-dub-dub is a popular variant in Australia and New Zealand.)

The other common shortening is, of course, the Web, since the World Wide part is pretty much taken for granted. The Oxford English Dictionary finds examples of the Web as early as 1993, a year or two before the Netscape browser and its competitors brought the Web to the masses. Once popularized, the Web spawned any number of compound forms, frequently with web left uncapitalized: for starters, there's web browser, web site (or website), web page (or webpage), web log, webmaster, and webcam — all of them household words by the turn of the 21st century.

It's little wonder that the American Dialect Society in January 2000 named web the Word of the 1990s. In the vote, held at the annual ADS conference in conjunction with its Word of the Year selection, web was the runaway favorite, garnering 45 votes (second place went to the prefix e-, with only 10 votes). And now that the ADS is gearing up for another Word of the Decade vote, for the years 2000 to 2009, an early frontrunner is in fact a web derivative: blog, which started off as a humorous clipping of the compound web log. Nineteen years after that fateful memo, we are all still caught in the web that Berners-Lee and Cailliau so brilliantly conceived.

Do you have your own nominations for Word of the Decade? Submit them here, or leave them in the comments below!


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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday November 12th 2009, 9:35 AM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
Thanks, Ben, for continuing to connect meaningful social phenomena and language. Great stuff.

As an editorial, I find it interesting when the engineers who build and design the technology also have a flair for naming/branding their innovations.

To that end, I'd love to see a study on the success ratio of poorly-named vs. well-named technical innovations, and see if the terms themselves are a factor in successful and widely-spread technologies.

Also, thank you for making me chuckle by digging up Adams' quip. You made me remember how much I miss his wit. Quick Adams plug: be sure to read one of his lesser-known books, "Last Chance to See." It's not only worth it, it's soooo worth it.
Saturday November 14th 2009, 11:07 AM
Comment by: Mark C. (Olathe, KS)
Ben, I enjoyed reminiscing over the short history of the location "www" (world-wide web) and was reminded of early (pre-1995?) sterile text-only web sites and web pages. The reason for my posting though is to answer a question pertaining to the further use of "web" as in (alternatively) website and webpage. What is the rule for determining when two separate nouns can be combined into a single new word, or rather an alternative spelling? Is this just a natural progression of the language? The growing appearance, or use, of this type of vocabulary within technology journalism seems to serve as another form of jargon for the novice reader thereby bringing added complexity to most writing.
Sunday November 15th 2009, 2:11 PM
Comment by: Edward L. (Cranston, RI)
thank you, thank you, thank you, for the World Wide Web.
Love it, Love, Love, it

Edward L
Saturday November 21st 2009, 3:35 PM
Comment by: Rain
Ah, the web...my own private library.

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