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.

"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."