Weekly Word Watch: bitcoins, belfies, and zebras
On the Weekly Word Watch, its love at first… etymology. Let’s kick things off with the big news about Prince Harry and Megan Markle – or #Harkle, as some our blending the newly engaged super-couple.
Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle sent hearts and social media feeds aflutter when they announced their engagement – oh, so sorry, #RoyalEngagement – this week. All daftness aside, the happy news was truly a welcome break from the bleaker bulletins that have been bombarding us in 2017.
We’ve swooned for Harry and Markle’s engagement story, but what about the word engagement’s story? The Oxford English Dictionary first attests the noun engagement in 1611 for a ‘pledging of property’, viz., a mortgage. So, too, for the older verb engage, cited as early as 1525 for ‘to pledge property’. The word’s underlying sense of pledge soon extended to other forms of securities and promises, including marriage.
The OED finds engage for ‘bind by a promise in marriage’ in 1728. While noting an intermediary plural form of engagements in the 1740s, the OED first marks the modern matrimonial engagement in (what better place?) than Jane Austen’s 1811 Sense and Sensibility. In fact, a search through the novel yields well over a 100 instances of engage/engagement, some used in the marital manner – and many others in the business sense. I smell an essay here, undergraduates.
The words come from French, with en- meaning ‘in’ and gage, ‘pledge’. A northern French form of gage, wage, gives us the English word for the same. As for the deeper origins of gage? Etymologists ultimately trace it back to the same Germanic root that gives us, as it happens, wed. Weddings, engagements – ‘pledges’. Ahh, how romantic. (Best not to ask a word nerd to officiate your ceremony.)
Many of us may have experienced a super-eruption of joy when we learned of the Royal Engagement, but scientists reserve this term for a far, um, darker event.
In Bali, the volcano Mount Agung has been erupting, sending tens of thousands of Indonesians fleeing its foothills as it belches gas and ash miles into the sky. So far, the eruption has been moderate according to vulcanologists – there’s a word we don’t get to use everyday – but some still fear Mount Agung still has the potential to become stronger as more magma rises to its top.
The event has had some scientists talking about (not-so-super) super-eruptions. To a geologist super-eruption is ‘volcanic eruption of exceptionally great power’ or ‘the eruption of a supervolcano’, as the OED defines it. While the term has been around since at least 1943, the event itself, thankfully, is exceedingly rare, previously estimated to occur every 45,000 to 714,000 years.
But #2017. A new study revises that estimate down to every 5,200 to 48,000 years. Back to work we go. Nothing to worry about here. Only the power to end civilization as we know it, as super-eruptions can spew enough sulphur into the atmosphere to usher in a cataclysmic ice age.
In business and tech jargon, a unicorn is a startup, such as Uber or Airbnb, valued at over $1 billion – rare and elusive as the mythical unicorn. The metaphor is credited to venture capitalist Aileen Lee, who used it in her 2013 article on the topic in TechCrunch. Scientists aren’t the only ones who like the super- prefix: Lee referred to Facebook as a super-unicorn, worth over $100 billion.
While unicorns can yield big payoffs for investors, a group of visionary women and entrepreneurs were concerned about how beneficial they, and this model of venture capitalism, are to civil society and democracy. So, they founded the Zebra Movement, and ‘this new movement’, they wrote in their Medium manifesto earlier this year, ‘demands a new symbol, so we’re claiming an animal of our own: the zebra’.
‘To state the obvious: unlike unicorns, zebras are real’, the manifesto continues, going on to explain that zebra companies are profitable and responsible (black and white), are mutualistic (herd animals), and have stamina (like the equine).
The movement is starting to gallop, holding a brainstorming conference, DazzleCon17, earlier in November. (‘A group of zebras is called a dazzle!’, the website explains). So, too, is the term zebra, as the inspiring initiative gets more and more coverage in the press – such as their recent feature in BBC Business.
It’s hard to startup a new word, but Lee’s unicorn did the job, and we’ll be watching for the same from zebra.
In a recent Weekly World Watch, we greeted the chinfie, or the hilarious and heartening ‘chin selfies’ Michelle Liu has been Instagramming from around the world. This week, we re-met the belfie, a blend of butt or bottom selfie, thanks to two Americans tourists who were arrested in Thailand after taking a bare-bummed picture before the holy Wat Arun temple in Bangkok.
Back in 2014 on the blog, we looked at the rise of selfie blend words, from helfie (a ‘hair selfie’) to shelfie (a picture of the books on one’s shelf) to, yes, the full of moon of belfie. And yes, there is such a thing as a belfie stick.
A great many of these coinages, though, wax and just as soon wane with changing tides of culture, but thanks to this cheeky pair, belfie has enjoyed another news cycle.
While they may face yet more charges, the two trouser-dropping travelers were fined $153 for their crime – or 0.02 bitcoin, as of the time of this writing.
This peer-to-peer cryptocurrency rocketed to an all-time high of $11,000 on Wednesday, though dipping back below $10,000 before the exchanges closed. The soaring values of these blockchain-based digital dineros has sparked a craze of investment and interest in the brave new world of cryptocurrency, making it worthy time to revisit the term bitcoin.
As Oxford Dictionaries defines it, bitcoin is ‘a type of digital currency in which encryption techniques are used to regulate the generation of units of currency and verify the transfer of funds, operating independently of a central bank’. That’s quite the mouthful – and headful – for such a bitty word, attributed to its mysterious creator(s), known as Satoshi Nakamoto. Capitalization of bitcoin varies (e.g., Bitcoin), though the lowercased bitcoin for its use as a count noun (10 bitcoins) seems in increasing favour.
While it certainly plays on the ‘small quantity’ of its homophone, bit, a computer bit is a shortening and merging of binary digit – a singular 1 or 0, in that most fundamental language of our most advanced technologies. Computer scientists have been using the term since at least 1948, according to the OED, and is credited to American mathematician John Tukey. The OED’s next citation for the word, from Scientific American in 1952, has proved prophetic: ‘It is almost certain that “bit” will become common parlance in the field of information, as ‘horsepower’ is in the motor field.’
Bitcoin is giving broader currency to bit, but it’s also tendering a new combining form, -coin. Following in Bitcoin’s footsteps, many other digital currencies have since emerged and use -coin as handy signifier that they are a digital currency: Dogecoin, Chinacoin, Litecoin, Peercoin, and Primecoin, to name a few.
You know how we language writers often talk about the ‘metaphorical extension’ of words from concrete instances to abstract ideas? Well, folks, we’re seeing it right before our eyes as coin evolves from a little disk in our pockets to a tiny, um, something-or-other in cyberspace.