Twenty years ago today, Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau authored the proposal that launched "the World Wide Web," and the English language has never been the same. In my On Language column for The New York Times Magazine this Sunday, I take a look back at the inception of "the Web" and its many linguistic offspring over the years. As a master metaphor for our online age, the gossamer Web has proved remarkably resilient.

As I mention in the column, the phrase "world-wide web" (with world-wide properly hyphenated) was not original to Berners-Lee and Cailliau, used in the past to refer to spy rings or other complex global networks. I quote Charles Kingsley's 1867 lecture, in which he writes, "I can conceive — may God avert the omen! — centuries hence, some future world-ruler sitting at the junction of all railroads, at the centre of all telegraph-wires — a world-spider in the omphalos of his world-wide web." Omphalos means "navel," or more figuratively "focal point" — as all omphaloskeptics, or navel-gazers, know. (If you've visited my Visual Thesaurus profile page, you'll know that I list omphaloskepsis as my favorite word!)

A century after Kingsley's lecture, in 1965, Julian Huxley and Bernard Kettlewell wrote in Charles Darwin And His World that Darwin "sat quietly at Down like a benevolent spider at the centre of a world-wide web of scientific communication." Again, a person is imagined in the arachnid role, presiding over a web of communications. In the WWW era, spider didn't exactly travel with the web, at least not as a central spinner. Rather, spider has become used as another term for a web crawler, a software program that automatically browses pages from around the Web. Google, for instance, creates the index for its search engine through spidering. But even the almighty Google isn't as powerful as the "world-spider" that Kingsley envisioned.

The web has teamed up with other metaphorical uses of language over the past two decades. Think of the words we use for moving from web page to web page through hyperlinks. There's navigating, derived from the guidance of ships on the high seas. There's browsing, a term that originally referred to animals grazing on leaves and other vegetation, and eventually was extended to the cursory reading of printed material. And there's surfing, which of course evokes the pastime of riding the waves on a surfboard. Of these three metaphors, navigating is the weightiest, while browsing and surfing get across the casual ease of the online experience as mediated by the web browser. On the other hand, both terms can also imply a merely superficial skimming, which may have made it difficult for the Web to be taken seriously, at least in the early days.

By now, the Web has established its digital hegemony, despite the provocative claims of those contrarians at Wired magazine that the Web is "dead." So let's tip our hats to the foresight of Berners-Lee and Cailliau in cooking up not only the technical system to share hyperlinked information on the Internet, but the figurative language to express this new kind of sharing. As I did last year on this date, I'd like to wish you all a happy Web Day!

What are your thoughts about the metaphorical underpinnings of the Web's twenty-year ascendancy? Anyone still remember the information superhighway? Let us know in the comments below!

Update: I talked about the 20th anniversary of the World Wide Web on WNYC's "The Takeaway."


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. 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:

Saturday November 13th 2010, 7:20 AM
Comment by: nannywoo is back (Wilmington, NC)
No comments yesterday. We're all busy navigating, surfing, browsing. Hope you had a happy day, Ben. Thanks for all the nutritious browsing material you put out there for us.

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Happy Web Day!
- 4 Comments
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