Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Nonplussed by Google Plus?

Every technological advance brings with it new vocabulary, very often by taking old words and supplying new meanings. The age of social media has given us friending and unfriending, following and unfollowing, and so forth. Now Google's foray into social networking, Google+, has introduced its own lingo: circles and hangouts, sparks and huddles. But with such a new system (Google+ is still in limited field trial), there's naturally some initial confusion over basic terminology.

In last Sunday's Boston Globe, I took a look at one tricky bit of Google+ word usage: the competitor to Facebook's like known as +1 — used for marking approval of anything in one's Google+ "stream" of posts, pictures, and links shared by people you've put in your "circles." Since Google would like everyone to write it as +1 instead of plus one, that leads to a quandary when using it as a verb. According to Google's own spelling conventions, the verb is inflected as +1's, +1'd, +1'ing. As I say in the Globe column, I suspect that actual usage will fail to follow the rigid paradigm Google has set up. Already we see many variants, very often with the term spelled out as plus one or plus-one. Some simplify it to plus, while others are coming up with more creative alternatives. (Adam Albright has suggested summand and bless. Baratunde Thurston, meanwhile, channels old-school hip-hop to transform +1 into and one.)

But there are many more terminological conundrums posed by Google+. What do you call it when you add someone to one of your G+ circles, along the lines of Facebook's friending? The question was raised early on by Rosa Golijan of MSNBC's Technolog blog. Some early adopters think that the verb should be plussing, but most seem to agree that it should be circling. That would mean that removing someone from your circles would be called uncircling or decircling. (We ran into the un- vs. de- issue with friending, of course.) Perhaps the cleverest alternative to un/de-circling comes from Leo Laporte: circumcision.

One interesting aspect of all this is the distinction Google is explicitly drawing between circles and the undifferentiated mass of "friends" that one has on Facebook. (Facebook does allow users to divvy up friends into "groups," but relatively few take advantage of that.) As a Google+ user puts names into circles, there is a default choice of a Friends circle, as opposed to Acquaintances and other slices of the social pie. The Friends circle, the hover-over text informs us, is intended for "your real friends, the ones you feel comfortable sharing private details with." I read that as a declaration of war against the Facebookian dilution of friendship, which has engendered a fair bit of backlash already.

The success of Google+ may hinge on how well these new terms can take off, supplying a kind of metaphorical foundation that makes the unfamiliar more familiar — what techie types like to call "building mindshare." Shared jargon can also bolster solidarity, the feeling that one belongs to a special community. We're seeing some glimmers of that linguistic community-building already; Erin McKean reports that some Google+ users have come up with a name for themselves: plussies.

Finally, let me sheepishly apologize for the title for this column, as I've already posted a snarky comment on Google+ about headline writers using the word nonplussed in articles about G+. But the pun is just too enticing, and it gives me the opportunity to link back to our earlier discussion about arguments over nonplussed, which traditionally has meant "bewildered" but has come to mean "unfazed" in usage by speakers from President Obama on down. In the era of Google+, nonplussed seems destined to develop even newer meanings, describing a person who falls out of a circle and is no longer plussed (minused?), or simply someone who has yet to be invited to join the network and is missing out on the fun. Time will tell how many of the nonplussed turn into plussies.

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Ben Zimmer 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:

Friday August 5th 2011, 11:14 AM
Comment by: brindle (Canada)
I've often wondered how the stodgy custodians of language view these upstarts who are re-engineering language? Do they frown on the dilution of the language or is it something they embrace?
Friday August 5th 2011, 11:52 AM
Comment by: Francisco Javier (Málaga Spain)
Blinding with science ? Let's see how many of those people can string three words together.
Friday August 5th 2011, 11:09 PM
Comment by: Carlos A. G. (Maroochydore Australia)
Seriously not serious ©
by Anonymous 1?*
(or un-seriously serious? or could it be unserious?). Now, don't you start being censorious or is it sensorious? (I am so confused that I don't remember if I am referring to censorship or sensors).

(*Yes, I know, so many have claimed this name! but I am the real thing. How do I know? Well I will tell you if I ever get a pay job writing silly articles like this one. You are right, again: fat chance! but I don't believe in chances. Things don't happen for nothing, we must think them first! (Now I am a philosopher) also, 'I seem to like brackets very much, I overuse them, bad writing technique' (somebody called me a philistine once,... but that's another story) At this stage of my writing you probably stop reading and go to make a cup of something hot to drink (or to pour it over my head). If you are still here, watch out, you may be in infringement of several laws of decency in reading and writing. Now to the real story...(suspense mounting!)
Once upon a time...Oh, no, no that again, it's been used since time immemorial. (I always wanted to say that and were afraid to do it), anyway (or should it be anyhow?)...
There is nothing new under the sun. Or should I say there is always something new under the sun? Languages have changed and adapted, being adopted and transported, translated (unfortunately too frequently lost in translation), interpreted, misinterpreted, etc..As we communicate more and more (or should I say communicate plus 2?) we get to know each other better and our way of talking becomes more frequently noticed and adopted, adapted, etc. I believe that a language is an active tool, it cannot be circumscribed within a too restricted restriction (redundancies redound around the globe) and even when it has been attempted all through history (I am referring to the language not to the redundancies), it remains active (perhaps more activated in certain circles than in others) and alive.(enliven up to the point of absurdity-like this comment) and it will continue to be so. Now it is too serious, seriously.
Anonymous 1

ANONYMOUS, nameless. (Gk.) Not in early use. Used by Pope, Dunciad, Testimonies of Authors (R.) Formed directly from the Gk., by substituting -ous for the Gk. suffix -ος, just as it is often substituted for the Lat. suffix -us.—Gk. ἀνώνυμος, nameless.—Gk. ἀνα-, full form of the neg. prefix (see Curtius); and ὄνομα, Æolic ὄνυμα, a name, cognate with E. name; so that the ω is due to coalescence of a and ο. See Name. Der.anonymous-ly.

Definition of ANONYMOUS from: An Etymology Dictionary of the English Language, by Walter W. Skeat, 1893)

P.D. We may meet again!?
Sunday August 7th 2011, 2:21 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Word practice by linguists whim. We, the commoners are the ultimate practitioners.
How a simple mis-spoke turned to the word of the year. "Defriending"-a funny term.
This trend will allow us to use "un" or "de" as a prefix to all words.
Think about that time, three years from today. You are reading Ben Zimmers article that uses words using +1, and -1.
Arithmatic chapters need to be re-written soon.Additional work will create additional job. Marvelous idea!
Wednesday August 10th 2011, 10:34 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
I think Google has done a terrible job of choosing its terminology for G+, if what they are after is "mindshare." They should have anticipated exactly the issues that Ben spells out, and tailored their terms to make them easy to absorb into the language, rather than using fussy constructions like "+1'd". If they didn't intensively study the linguistic lessons that Facebook has already provided, it will be their own fault when G+ doesn't take root in the language in the same way.
Thursday September 15th 2011, 11:46 AM
Comment by: Literacy C.
As a teacher looking for ways to engage students I'm terribly confused about how to teach usage of this site to a student...any suggestions?

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"Unfriending" is older than you think, long predating Facebook.
The Un-Believable Un-Verb
The "un-" prefix has shown remarkable potential in the digital era.
Facebook and Twitter quickly developed their own special terminology.
"Nonplussed" is changing its meaning from "bewildered" to "unfazed."