Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Language of Social Media: "Unlike" Any Other

Earlier this week I appeared as a guest on the NPR show "Charlotte Talks" (from Charlotte, North Carolina) to talk about language in the electronic age. Callers expressed a fair amount of hand-wringing about how English usage is under fire from new modes of communication, from text-messaging to social media sites. Rather than focusing on the negative, I'd like to celebrate some of the innovative linguistic forms that have been bubbling up online.

When people think of new electronically mediated language, they tend to focus on the abbreviations like "LOL" (laugh out loud) and "OMG" (oh my God) popularized in text-messaging and instant-messaging. Or they might think of those dreaded emoticons that pepper so much of online discourse. But what about the language associated with wildly popular forums for oversharing like Twitter and Facebook?

Twitter, along with producing a telegraphic writing style for those trying to cram their thoughts into a 140-character space, has also given us a whole new vocabulary. Lexicographer Erin McKean recently provided a primer for Twitterese in the Boston Globe:

The messages are tweets; the people signed up to get them are your followers - or tweeple, or tweeps (although there are people pushing twerps and twits as the proper nomenclature).

The Twittersphere (or Twitterverse) includes both the Twitterati (or Tweetstars) who have lots and lots of followers, and those who have just a few. It even includes tworkers - people whose jobs involve using Twitter.

A twoosh is a message that fits the maximum of 140 characters exactly, without editing; there are also mistweets, retweets, and - when sent under the influence of alcohol - dweets.

Twittering too much may get you accused of Twitterhea, or cause your tweeple to unfollow you. Unfollowing might also be the punishment for other breaches of Twitiquette, such as using Twitter to send spam tweets (or speets).

All of those tw- words are particular to the Twitter subculture, but unfollowing deserves special attention. It's one of a new brand of un- words that have flourished on social media sites. One of the hallmarks of social media is the ability for users to register their interest in something they see. But what if you change your mind? Then you can always undo the action that you've made.

LiveJournal, a virtual community of bloggers and diary-keepers, has been a pioneer in this type of usage. LiveJournalers were among the first to make friend into a transitive verb to describe the act of adding someone to an online list of acquaintances. (Other social networks like MySpace and Friendster soon got in on the act too.) To remove someone from friend status requires defriending or unfriending. Either the de- or the un- prefix works as a "reversative," indicating the undoing of a reversible act (though un- seems to be winning out over de- as the preferred prefix these days).

A similar notion to friending is marking something as a favorite — say, an image that you see on the photo-sharing site Flickr — known more commonly as favoriting. Naturally, once something is favorited, you still have the ability to unfavorite it later. The content-sharing site Digg has developed its own peculiar set of verbs: if you like a link that someone has submitted, you digg it (giving it a thumbs-up). Reversing your opinion is known as undigging.

Facebook is the latest trendsetter in reversible language. If you get tagged in a photo on Facebook (so that your name is associated with that photo), you can untag yourself to avoid anyone coming across the evidence of a particularly embarrassing moment. The New York Times even devoted an entire article last year to the tagging/untagging phenomenon.

Facebook's latest innovation seems to be based on the digg/undigg model: you can choose to register your approval for someone else's status update or posted item by clicking a thumbs-up like button. The like feature is, of course, reversible, so at any time you can unlike an item you've previously liked. Note that unliking something is not the same as disliking it. In fact, Facebook does not currently have a negative complement for liking: you either like what you see or you remain neutral.

How do you feel about this proliferation of new verbs and un-verbs? Personally, I like it, but I think I'll reserve the option to unlike it in the future.

Click here to read more articles from Word Routes.

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.

The rise of social media sites has blurred the boundaries between public and private communication.
Working within the constraints of Twitter can actually help writers learn to be more concise.
Author David Crystal finds that text-messaging can actually help student literacy.