How Jargon Works

Jargon Construction

There are some standard methods of jargonification that became established quite early (i.e., before 1970), spreading from such sources as the Tech Model Railroad Club, the PDP-1 SPACEWAR hackers, and John McCarthy's original crew of LISPers. These include verb doubling, soundalike slang, the `-P' convention, overgeneralization, spoken inarticulations, and anthropomorphization. Each is discussed below. We also cover the standard comparatives for design quality.

Of these six, verb doubling, overgeneralization, anthropomorphization, and (especially) spoken inarticulations have become quite general; but soundalike slang is still largely confined to MIT and other large universities, and the `-P' convention is found only where LISPers flourish.

Verb Doubling

A standard construction in English is to double a verb and use it as an exclamation, such as "Bang, bang!" or "Quack, quack!". Most of these are names for noises. Hackers also double verbs as a concise, sometimes sarcastic comment on what the implied subject does. Also, a doubled verb is often used to terminate a conversation, in the process remarking on the current state of affairs or what the speaker intends to do next. Typical examples involve win, lose, hack, flame, barf, chomp:

"The disk heads just crashed." "Lose, lose."
"Mostly he talked about his latest crock. Flame, flame."
"Boy, what a bagbiter! Chomp, chomp!"

Some verb-doubled constructions have special meanings not immediately obvious from the verb. These have their own listings in the lexicon.

The Usenet culture has one tripling convention unrelated to this; the names of `joke' topic groups often have a tripled last element. The first and paradigmatic example was alt.swedish.chef.bork.bork.bork (a "Muppet Show" reference); other infamous examples have included:

alt.french.captain.borg.borg.borg
alt.wesley.crusher.die.die.die
comp.unix.internals.system.calls.brk.brk.brk
sci.physics.edward.teller.boom.boom.boom
alt.sadistic.dentists.drill.drill.drill

Soundalike slang

Hackers will often make rhymes or puns in order to convert an ordinary word or phrase into something more interesting. It is considered particularly flavorful if the phrase is bent so as to include some other jargon word; thus the computer hobbyist magazine "Dr. Dobb's Journal" is almost always referred to among hackers as `Dr. Frob's Journal' or simply `Dr. Frob's'. Terms of this kind that have been in fairly wide use include names for newspapers:

    Boston Herald => Horrid (or Harried)
    Boston Globe => Boston Glob
    Houston (or San Francisco) Chronicle
           => the Crocknicle (or the Comical)
    New York Times => New York Slime
    Walll Street Journal => Wall Street Urinal

However, terms like these are often made up on the spur of the moment. Standard examples include:

    Data General => Dirty Genitals
    IBM 360 => IBM Three-Sickly
    Government Property -- Do Not Duplicate (on keys)
            => Government Duplicity -- Do Not Propagate
    for historical reasons => for hysterical raisins
    Margaret Jacks Hall (the CS building at Stanford)
            => Marginal Hacks Hall
    Microsoft => Microsloth
    Internet Explorer => Internet Exploiter

This is not really similar to the Cockney rhyming slang it has been compared to in the past, because Cockney substitutions are opaque whereas hacker punning jargon is intentionally transparent.

The `-P' convention

Turning a word into a question by appending the syllable `P'; from the LISP convention of appending the letter `P' to denote a predicate (a boolean-valued function). The question should expect a yes/no answer, though it needn't. (See T and NIL.)

    At dinnertime:
Q: "Foodp?"
A: "Yeah, I'm pretty hungry." or "T!"
At any time:
Q: "State-of-the-world-P?"
A: (Straight) "I'm about to go home."
A: (Humorous) "Yes, the world has a state."
On the phone to Florida:
Q: "State-p Florida?"
A: "Been reading JARGON.TXT again, eh?"

[One of the best of these is a Gosperism. Once, when we were at a Chinese restaurant, Bill Gosper wanted to know whether someone would like to share with him a two-person-sized bowl of soup. His inquiry was: "Split-p soup?" -- GLS]

Overgeneralization

A very conspicuous feature of jargon is the frequency with which techspeak items such as names of program tools, command language primitives, and even assembler opcodes are applied to contexts outside of computing wherever hackers find amusing analogies to them. Thus (to cite one of the best-known examples) Unix hackers often grep for things rather than searching for them. Many of the lexicon entries are generalizations of exactly this kind.

Hackers enjoy overgeneralization on the grammatical level as well. Many hackers love to take various words and add the wrong endings to them to make nouns and verbs, often by extending a standard rule to nonuniform cases (or vice versa). For example, because

porous => porosity
generous => generosity

hackers happily generalize:

mysterious => mysteriosity
ferrous => ferrosity
obvious => obviosity
dubious => dubiosity

Another class of common construction uses the suffix `-itude' to abstract a quality from just about any adjective or noun. This usage arises especially in cases where mainstream English would perform the same abstraction through `-iness' or `-ingness'. Thus:

win => winnitude (a common exclamation)
loss => lossitude
cruft => cruftitude
lame => lameitude

Some hackers cheerfully reverse this transformation; they argue, for example, that the horizontal degree lines on a globe ought to be called `lats' -- after all, they're measuring latitude!

Also, note that all nouns can be verbed. E.g.: "All nouns can be verbed", "I'll mouse it up", "Hang on while I clipboard it over", "I'm grepping the files". English as a whole is already heading in this direction (towards pure-positional grammar like Chinese); hackers are simply a bit ahead of the curve.

However, hackers avoid the unimaginative verb-making techniques characteristic of marketroids, bean-counters, and the Pentagon; a hacker would never, for example, `productize', `prioritize', or `securitize' things. Hackers have a strong aversion to bureaucratic bafflegab and regard those who use it with contempt.

Similarly, all verbs can be nouned. This is only a slight overgeneralization in modern English; in hackish, however, it is good form to mark them in some standard nonstandard way. Thus:

win => winnitude, winnage
disgust => disgustitude
hack => hackification

Further, note the prevalence of certain kinds of nonstandard plural forms. Some of these go back quite a ways; the TMRC Dictionary includes an entry which implies that the plural of `mouse' is meeces, and notes that the defined plural of `caboose' is `cabeese'. This latter has apparently been standard (or at least a standard joke) among railfans (railroad enthusiasts) for many years.

On a similarly Anglo-Saxon note, almost anything ending in `x' may form plurals in `-xen' (see VAXen and boxen in the main text). Even words ending in phonetic /k/ alone are sometimes treated this way; e.g., `soxen' for a bunch of socks. Other funny plurals are `frobbotzim' for the plural of `frobbozz' (see frobnitz) and `Unices' and `Twenices' (rather than `Unixes' and `Twenexes'; see Unix, TWENEX in main text). But note that `Unixen' and `Twenexen' are never used; it has been suggested that this is because `-ix' and `-ex' are Latin singular endings that attract a Latinate plural. Finally, it has been suggested to general approval that the plural of `mongoose' ought to be `polygoose'.

The pattern here, as with other hackish grammatical quirks, is generalization of an inflectional rule that in English is either an import or a fossil (such as the Hebrew plural ending `-im', or the Anglo-Saxon plural suffix `-en') to cases where it isn't normally considered to apply.

This is not `poor grammar', as hackers are generally quite well aware of what they are doing when they distort the language. It is grammatical creativity, a form of playfulness. It is done not to impress but to amuse, and never at the expense of clarity.

Spoken inarticulations

Words such as `mumble', `sigh', and `groan' are spoken in places where their referent might more naturally be used. It has been suggested that this usage derives from the impossibility of representing such noises on a comm link or in electronic mail, MUDs, and IRC channels (interestingly, the same sorts of constructions have been showing up with increasing frequency in comic strips). Another expression sometimes heard is "Complain!", meaning "I have a complaint!"

Anthropomorphization

Semantically, one rich source of jargon constructions is the hackish tendency to anthropomorphize hardware and software. This isn't done in a naive way; hackers don't personalize their stuff in the sense of feeling empathy with it, nor do they mystically believe that the things they work on every day are `alive'. What is common is to hear hardware or software talked about as though it has homunculi talking to each other inside it, with intentions and desires. Thus, one hears "The protocol handler got confused", or that programs "are trying" to do things, or one may say of a routine that "its goal in life is to X". One even hears explanations like "... and its poor little brain couldn't understand X, and it died." Sometimes modelling things this way actually seems to make them easier to understand, perhaps because it's instinctively natural to think of anything with a really complex behavioral repertoire as `like a person' rather than `like a thing'.

Comparatives

Finally, note that many words in hacker jargon have to be understood as members of sets of comparatives. This is especially true of the adjectives and nouns used to describe the beauty and functional quality of code. Here is an approximately correct spectrum:

monstrosity brain-damage screw bug lose misfeature
crock kluge hack win feature elegance perfection

The last is spoken of as a mythical absolute, approximated but never actually attained. Another similar scale is used for describing the reliability of software:

broken flaky dodgy fragile brittle
solid robust bulletproof armor-plated

Note, however, that `dodgy' is primarily Commonwealth Hackish (it is rare in the U.S.) and may change places with `flaky' for some speakers.

Coinages for describing lossage seem to call forth the very finest in hackish linguistic inventiveness; it has been truly said that hackers have even more words for equipment failures than Yiddish has for obnoxious people.

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