Category Archives: Communication

Friending, inboxing and googling: how verbing is changing the way we speak

Diary date: 3rd November, 1985Word cloud

It’s the Autumn of 1985 and I’m back at university again, this time for year 2 of my 4 year course. I leave my parents at home with a promise to call or send a letter soon, but with so many student distractions to get reacquainted with, it will be a while before I’m in touch.

If I didn’t pen many letters back then, I write even fewer now. All but the most formal have been replaced by text messages, Facebook, Twitter and the rest.

In fact, we’re in such a rush to communicate these days that we’ve even reduced the words we use to describe these activities to the bare minimum. Sending a text message is simply texting, just as contacting someone on Facebook is now Facebooking or inboxing them. Tagging a tweet on Twitter involves hashtagging and sending an email is obviously emailing. Linking up with people is friending, and falling out with them again is described by the Oxford University Press word of the year of 2009: unfriending. And of course searching online is now amply covered by the ubiquitous idea of googling.

It all makes you wonder why sending a letter never quite managed to become lettering, and why watching TV isn’t just TVing or tellying (although in our own linguistically progressive household, it has recently been shortened to simply ‘watching’ – just as standing in front of a mirror preening yourself has become ‘vaining’).

What’s happening here is something that English has a proud tradition of doing with gay abandon, and that’s ‘verbing’ – converting nouns to verbs as the language evolves. It’s not only technology that makes use of this trend – nouns as diverse as butcher, parent, showcase and chair all spawned equivalent verbs years ago that today we take for granted. Linguist Steven Pinker has explained just how common this phenomenon is:

…easy conversion of nouns to verbs has been part of English grammar for centuries; it is one of the processes that make English English. I have estimated that about a fifth of all English verbs were originally nouns…

What’s wonderful is the degree to which people care about these changes and how quick they are to take a view on whether they represent positive or negative contributions to the popular vernacular.

My favourite case in point is the recent spat between Swedish lexicographers and global Internet giants Google. When it was proposed that the word ogooglebar (literally ‘ungoogle-able’) should be officially added to the Swedish language as a word roughly meaning ‘something that cannot be found on the web using a search engine,’ Google objected and pushed for the definition to include reference to their brand. Believing that language should be independent of such sordid commercial concerns, the Swedes refused and promptly dropped ogooglebar from their plans.

Swedish lexicographers (playing at home on the moral high ground): 1, Google (playing away from home and forgetting that a language belongs to its people): 0.

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Telephone country codes: A shorthand history of the world

Calling SwedenDiary date: 31st July, 1985

A watershed moment 28 years ago this week: I’ve arrived in Sweden for a three-month stay working as a cleaner on the dockyards in Gothenburg. After a week, I managed to get enough Kronor in a public phone box to call my family and let them know I’d arrived safely. I spoke to them for about 20 seconds before my change ran out.

As a child of International Direct Dialling – the ability to make country-to-country phone calls without the help of a human operator – it was around this point that I started to make a mental note of the ‘country codes’ of places I’d visited. From Sweden, I knew I needed to dial 44 to get back to the UK. Doing the reverse – calling Sweden from the UK – I needed a 46 instead. At the time, I remember thinking that the allocation of these numbers was probably based on the alphabet. 44 was close to 46, and the ‘U’ of United Kingdom was close to the ‘S’ of Sweden. Who needed Wikipedia back then?

In fact, the development of the country code system is not nearly that simple, telling as it does by proxy the story of global geo-political change since the early 1960’s.

An initial list of largely European country codes was mooted in 1960 by the organisation which was to become the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) – the UN agency which helps coordinate global telecoms. The list was published as the Red Book and proposed around 50 two-digit codes (presumably used at the time by operators rather than subscribers), including the now-defunct Yugoslavia (63), Arabia (26) and Czechoslovakia (57).

The Red Book became Blue in 1964 and brought with it a proposal for a new system. The world was divided into nine zones, and countries were given one, two or three-digit country codes, with the initial digit representing their zone. World Zone 1 was North America, Zone 2 was Africa, Europe bagged both 3 and 4 because of the sheer number of larger countries, and so on.

In 1968 the Book was White and built on the new model, with a wide range of changes and additions, including East Germany (37), the Trucial States (971) and Zanzibar (252). Turkey, which in 1964 had the European code 36, moved to Zone 9 (Western Asia and the Middle East) and adopted its current code – 90.

1972 was Green and did a lot of tidying up.  Several Central American countries like El Salvador and Honduras left the North American Zone 1, and became part of Zone 5 – South America. The Trucial States merged to become the United Arab Emirates and acquired code 971, and Rhodesia (263) became Zimbabwe. Ceylon (92) kept the same country code but became Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, Morocco strangely found itself with with three codes all to itself (210, 211 and 212).

The books in the next few years started with Orange and Yellow, but their four-year cycles were eventually abandoned so that the ITU could keep pace with the demands of the new world of personal computing.

The changes since then read like a shorthand history of the world:

  • In 1984, the Republic of Upper Volta (226) became Burkina Faso, and the Falkland Islands, previously assigned to Guatemala, acquired their own code – 500.
  • The same year, a new code – 850 – was created for North Korea, with South Korea retaining code 82.
  • After German reunification in 1990, East Germany’s code 37 was deleted in favour of West Germany’s 49.
  • Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia (251) in 1993 and acquired a new code – 291.
  • Lithuania (370), Latvia (371), Estonia (372) and several other states split from Zone 7 (originally named ‘USSR’ in 1964) in 1993. The only former Soviet republic that retained its ‘7’ designation was (and remains) Kazakhstan.
  • Yugoslavia (38) was deleted in 1993 and became Serbia and Montenegro (381), Croatia (385), Slovenia (386), Bosnia (387) and Macedonia (389).
  • Vatican City gained its own code (379) in 1995 – instead of just being reachable through Italy.
  • In 1997, Czechoslovakia (57) became the Czech Republic (420) and Slovakia (421).
  • Following its independence from Indonesia, East Timor was assigned code 670 in 1999.
  • Palestine was given code 970 in 1999, replacing its previous access via Israel on code 972.

In fact, of the original 1960 Red Book list, only six countries* today retain the codes they were initially given.

Coincidentally – and rather fittingly for my followthehumming story – two of these are the ever-lovely Sweden (46) and my own United Kingdom (44).

*Just out of interest – since you’ve got this far – the other four are Greece, France, Italy and ‘Germany.’

Why waiting matters

Waiting for a traffic lightDiary date: 11th June, 1985

If you believe my diary, there seems to have been an awful lot of waiting around involved in living in 1985 – along with a fair amount of lingering, dallying and even the occasional bout of tarrying.

Mostly, I seem to have been waiting for friends who were late for something, but I also spent lots of time waiting for buses and trains, or for a particular book to become available at the library, or even for a letter to arrive. Waiting was often a pain in the backside, but it did have its occasional serendipitous upside – like the unexpected chance to chat to the cute girl from down the road who you never managed to accidentally bump into no matter how hard you tried.

Many of the things my 80s self used to wait for now sound distinctly old-fashioned. That boring half an hour spent on a street corner waiting for my friends to show up has disappeared altogether and been replaced by a preventative text, Facebook or WhatsApp message. News from my extended family now arrives instantly by email instead of days later by exhausted-looking letter. If my train is late, my phone buzzes to let me know before I’ve even left home. My holiday snaps are seen by friends and family while I’m still away – instead of weeks later after they’ve been printed out on special paper at the local chemist. And my parents used to have to wait till I came home from university before finding out much about what had happened during each term. These days, they’d probably be able to fashion a blow-by-blow account from blogs, texts and status updates – even if I decided not to let them be my friends on Facebook.

Given all this general speeding up, whizzing around and instant gratification, it’s nice to know that waiting for some things still takes just as long as it used to. It still seems to take around nine months between conceiving and having a baby, for example – which is almost certainly a good thing for all concerned. Mercifully, there are also still 12 months between Christmases and birthdays. And the average waiting time for a date with the cute girl from down the road isn’t necessarily any shorter these days just because you follow her on Twitter.

In reality, we’re still waiting for a lot of the important stuff in life just like we always have done. What’s really changed is how quickly and easily we can communicate about it with other people.

Given that anticipation is allegedly half the feast, the fact that waiting hasn’t gone completely out of fashion is no bad thing. These days, perhaps all we’re doing is sharing the feast just that little bit more.

The only way is Ethics

WhatsApp logoDiary date: 19th May, 1985

Whoever wrote my diary 28-years ago this week sounds like a bit of a whinger. Whoever he is, he’s angsting about revision. A lot.

However, if you’re prepared to believe my A-Level-studying daughter, this is one area of life where times have definitely changed for the better. It seems the best place to deal with revision angst these days is not your desk or the library, but in fact mobile messaging service WhatsApp. A quick demo was enough to convince me that it might amount to more than the usual phone-based time-wasting, so I’ve magnanimously agreed not to pass final judgement until the exams are over – at which point my already irrelevant opinion will be even more academic.

As for the mutual support and expertise WhatsApp helps provide, a real-life example will tell you all you need to know. Faithfully reproduced from my daughter’s phone and saved for posterity, here’s a revision thread covering the complex, highbrow and morally challenging world of A-Level Philosophy and Ethics.

I pass no comment. But I may conceivably be arching an enigmatic eyebrow. Needless to say, names have been changed to protect the innocent:

AP: Shit for ethics I’ve barely gone over genetic engineering and war haha

EM: Neither but ive done bentham and kant

SC: Mee too

EM: So lets hope they come up!!

FG: Im going bentham and kant hopefully

AP: When it says prime mover, what argument is that from? Cosmo or aristotle?

FG: Aristotle

AP: Kkk chillin

SC: Im going ontological and god as creator if thats right

EM: Ok thats not terrible if they come up, wanted ma boy plato though

AP: I really dont mind any of philosophy but not god as creator

FG: I was hoping cosmological?

AP: I wanted paleys watch but that was too optimistic

EM: All the ones i havent done properly have come up apart from science and religion, which is scary

SC: The 2 i know quotes for arent there ffs haha

EM: Can i use ‘good will shines forth like precious jewel’ for kant in ethics?

SC: Yeah

AP: I literally havent even looked at genetic engineering!!!! Scared 😦

FG: I know a long teleological quote, i want that to come up

AP: Quite honestly, im going to fail

EM: Mee too

AP: Seriously id be better off not turning up

EM: Gonna die

AP: Its gonna be horrific

SC: Im gonna bring snacks for that six min break haha

AP: Cant seem to find all my revision for ethics, theres an issue

FG: So funny how we have a six minute break i dont quite understand

SC: Wonder why six not five

AP: Hahaha

FG: We wont leave the room

EM: Omg gals this time tomorrow we’ll have finished philo!!! Woooo

AP: No guys ive lost all my ethics

AP: No ono

AP: well im failing ethics.

The death of a time and a place for everything

Diary date: 12th May, 1985

Amazon LockerI did two utterly unremarkable things this week in 1985, but they were exactly the kind of things I started followthehumming to help me spot.

First off, I went to the university library twice to do some research on Swedish canals (sounds odd I know, but don’t be alarmed, I’ve written before about how this forms part of my secret superpower). The library itself was about three miles away, so going there wasn’t a decision to be taken lightly, eating as it did into valuable drinking time.

Secondly, I waited at home all evening for a phone call that never came (don’t worry, I’m over her now – or at least I was until I started re-reading my diaries!).

What on earth was I thinking? Why didn’t I just turn on my tablet, connect to the nearest wi-fi and do my research sitting in Starbucks? Or just put my mobile on vibrate and head to the nearest bar to drown my sorrows in anticipation of what was about to happen?

Clearly the fact that the technology involved was a distant dream at the time didn’t help, but what these stories really bring to life is the very different relationship we had with ‘place’ in the 80’s.

Back then, place sat high on the list of stuff you needed to keep an eye on. If you agreed to meet someone somewhere at a certain time, the arrangement was locked and loaded. Once things were under way, you couldn’t alter your plans without leaving someone stranded. Today, we don’t even agree to meet up, we just agree to agree to meet up later, details to be confirmed – with at least the one consequent benefit of it now being very hard to be late for anything.

Activities happened in predictable places. Phone calls were taken wherever the phone was  plugged in – a draughty hall in my case. Watching TV happened in the living-room with everyone crowded round, rather than in isolated pockets of the house and on lots of different devices. Books were browsed and bought in a bookshop. ‘Computing’ happened three feet in front of the television into which you’d plugged your ZX-81. Video games were played in a seedy arcade. Listening to your music library happened wherever your parents had set up their ‘Music Centre’ – the enormous record-and-cassette-tape-playing monster that has now been replaced by the ubiquitous iPod. Even living itself was location-specific, and took place either in the kitchen or the living-room, probably the only two rooms where your mum and dad thought it was acceptable to turn on the central heating.

Place continues to evolve. With Amazon Locker, the world’s largest online retailer has decided that even the home is not sacrosanct. The items you’ve bought from them can now simply be delivered to you as an individual – wherever you are.

As technology changes, so the idea of place is gradually becoming more fluid and more personal.

Place feels less and less like something external with which we interact.

Instead, it has started travelling with us.

Why Facebook friending doesn’t mean friendship

Diary date: 29th April, 1985

FriendsI’m depressed. Or rather, my 1985 self is depressed. My diary today is a stark and rather maudlin list of the names of eight good friends I’m about to leave behind – probably forever*. I’m getting ready to go back to university in Hull, but more importantly – now that they have successfully launched me from the family nest – my parents are in the process of upping sticks and moving house from rural Norfolk to the bright lights of the Bavarian capital, Munich. Once they move, ‘going home’ will never be the same again.

The eight names are like a roll call of the lost.

Keep in touch, maybe? Send letters? Ridiculous. At 19, the very idea was embarrassing – and how did you put pub banter in writing anyway? The occasional phone call? No chance. No access to a phone and no money for calls either.

No, all is lost. Might as well forget them all now and be done with it.

Facebook: compare and contrast.

Life these days couldn’t be more different. Facebook and other social tools mean that losing contact is almost more difficult than maintaining it, and relationships can seemingly be sustained with much larger numbers of people. According to an April 2013 study by Stephen Wolfram,  the median number of friends per person on Facebook has now reached the dizzy heights of 342. This number varies with age of course, with younger users having substantially more ‘friends’ than those in older age groups.

The people we ‘friend’ on Facebook change with age too. Most of our friends in our younger years tend to be about our own age – then as we get older we start branching out a little. Wolfram also explains why it is that so many of our friends appear to have more friends than we do – a real world phenomenon called the friendship paradox.

Facebook even means people can make relatively intimate contact in anticipation of possible future friendship – say, hooking up online before going somewhere new – perfect for today’s university newbies.

It seems numbers of friends may be important for reasons other than notional popularity too – the more friends you have, the more money you’re allegedly likely to earn. In 2009, the BBC cited a 35-year study of 10,000 US students which suggested that the most financially comfortable in later life were those that had the most friends when they were at school. Each extra friend added a not insignificant 2% to their future salary.

Robin Dunbar

Robin Dunbar

But friendship surely isn’t a numbers game.  And is it really possible to have active friendships with the hundreds of contacts that Facebook encourages? Enter British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who proposed a hard-wired limit to the number of people with whom we can maintain stable social relationships – an idea popularised as Dunbar’s number. The most oft-quoted Dunbar figure is around 150 – way below Wolfram’s median of about 400 friends for Facebook users in their early twenties.

The obvious conclusion is that what’s happening on Facebook (and elsewhere) isn’t friendship in its traditional sense, but a set of relationships built more loosely around values like mutual awareness and availability. As a result, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Facebook and (more effectively) Google+ have both introduced ways for us to group friends according to the kind of relationship we want to have with them. In other words, they’re facilitating their users’ retreat to something closer to Dunbar’s number.

Of the eight friends I left behind in 1985, the absence of social media combined with our collective male apathy meant that I eventually lost touch with all but one. I’m sure the current crop of Facebook users will fare far better, but the jury’s still out on whether they’ll be able to maintain the extraordinary pace they’ve set themselves.

*In fact, it turned out to be about 23 years, but I wasn’t far wrong, so let’s not split hairs.

Swedish as a superpower

Swedish ChefDiary date: 20th April, 1985

This week in 1985 I’m working hard on my Swedish, ready for a mid-year exam once I’m back at university in a week or so’s time. I’m reading a book called Barnens Ö by PC Jersild, but since I learned my first words of Swedish just a few short months ago, it’s pretty slow going.

Given that speaking Swedish is about as close to a secret superpower as I’m ever likely to get, it’s worth recording just what all that studying left me capable of in the intervening 28 years. After all, these days a single click and a nano-second of Google Translate is all I need to Swedify followthehumming.

Here’s a quick summary for posterity.

1. I can surprise beautiful Swedish women when they least expect it.

Sadly, this is far less exciting than it sounds – and in fact I have only ever used this aspect of my superpower once. I was an anonymous twenty-year old sitting opposite a couple of blue-eyed, blonde Swedish girls on a train somewhere in Greece in the late eighties. Naturally I was trying to pretend I wasn’t staring at them. They started guessing at my nationality, presuming I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I took a deep breath and decided this was my big moment. “I’m English,” I said in Swedish, “Nice to meet you.” I was then immediately informed – in a fluent English rich in colour and idiom – that I shouldn’t be such a nosy bastard.

2. I know an unfeasibly large amount about the history of Swedish canals.

No, really, I do. Like the fact that the Göta Canal (construction dates: 1810-1832; length: 190km; manual excavation: 87km; principal labour: 58,000 soldiers) which links Sjötorp on Lake Vänern to Mem on the east Swedish coast was designed by our own Thomas Telford. And that it became known as the ‘divorce ditch’ because of all the arguments that couples were supposed to have navigating its 58 locks. I could go on. But mercifully I won’t.

Cleaning in sweden

You can’t beat a nice jumpsuit

3. I am perfectly positioned to know what it’s like to feel untall, unblonde and unhandsome.

I once had a job cleaning dockers’ changing rooms on a Swedish dockyard. I wore a bright red jumpsuit every day with a logo saying, ‘We clean anything, anywhere, any time.’ Even with the perk of the jumpsuit, the job was less than glamorous. At the weekends, I spent my spare time wandering the streets of Gothenburg wondering how a race of people could possibly be so unattainably beautiful. I’m pretty sure I’ve carried that feeling with me ever since – along with a keen sense of appreciation for a nicely-tailored jumpsuit.

4. I can correct people who think that the Swedish Chef actually spoke Swedish.

The Muppets have a lot to answer for. Tell someone you can speak a little Swedish and I guarantee they will find it impossible not to start saying ‘bork, bork, bork’ or ‘hurdy gurdy,’ and generally impersonating the Swedish Chef. It doesn’t end there: Google even offers a version of its service in the language ‘Bork, bork, bork.’ The act of reassuring deluded Muppet fans that this is not a real language never gets the thanks it deserves, but it seems like the right thing to do.

5. I can translate the furniture names at Ikea.

Possibly the most useful aspect of my superpower, I can inform dazed Ikea shoppers that they are standing next to a three-piece suite called cliff, holding a cup called humble, or sitting on a chair called point. It almost makes it worth the 3-hour round trip and 2-hour queue to get into the car park.