Why we're talking differently about the Web

The ways in which we talk about technology - and how we communicate through it - are rapidly changing. What does this mean for the future of our language?

You don't have to be too old to remember when everything online was referred to as "cyber-this" or "cyber-that". In fact, the proliferation of words nodding to "cyberspace" was so overwhelming that in 1998, the New York Times predicted that "cyber" would soon be on its way out. It just wasn't cool anymore.

In a way, the paper was right. Nobody really talks about cyberspace today - and web searches for the term have slumped over the past 10 years.

But phrases like "cyber attack" or "cyber crime" have actually become more popular in recent years. Curiously enough, cyber has come to be associated almost exclusively with things that are dark, nefarious or threatening.

"It really harkened back to the dystopian novel that the prefix cyber came from," says University of Pittsburgh linguist Lauren B Collister, referencing the William Gibson sci-fi classic, Neuromancer. This, indeed, is how the word has been used by governments and authorities most frequently.

But while "cyber" has become niche and unfashionable, the words we use to refer to the internet generally have also evolved. A more subtle shift, perhaps, but a handful of linguists like Collister have noticed that we just don't talk explicitly about "the internet" or even "the web" as much as we used to.

"I hear a lot more about 'online', 'I went online', I didn't 'go onto the internet'. Online in some ways I think has replaced some of the earlier locutions like 'internet' and 'cyber' because it's one simple label," explains Naomi Baron, professor of Linguistics at American University and author of "Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World."

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