Book Review - NetLingo The Internet Dictionary: Online Dictionary of Computer and Internet Terms, Acronyms, Text Messaging, Smileys ;-)

NetLingo Book Review

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by Paolo G. Cordone of First Monday

Finding a decent online dictionary is a fairly easy task these days. In fact, so many of them have sprung up in recent years that it would be even difficult to maintain an up-to-date list. But despite this abundance, I was intrigued when I found out about NetLingo. Here there was, I thought, something of an interesting "odd one out": whereas a number of such resources have, at some stage in their history, migrated from paper onto the Web, with the rest having existed only in electronic format from day one, NetLingo's authors (compilers would probably be a more apt word), Erin Jansen and Vincent James, have decided to go the other way: they have produced a printed version of what started back in 1995 under the name "NetLingo", a very useful online reference dedicated to Internet terminology. Thus, it could be said that the book is the companion to a Web site, rather than the other way around. Apparently the request for a real book came from the many NetLingo's visitors who realised that consulting a paper-based dictionary can still be handy, especially in those situations where a computer is not near, or no direct connection to the Internet is available.

In order to give some raison d'Ítre to her work, Erin Jansen introduces NetLingo by saying: "A variety of computing and technical terms are included in NetLingo, but only as they pertain to the Net. Indeed, one of the main reasons NetLingo exists is because most of the dictionaries I have seen in this genre are too difficult to understand. They're usually full of arcane computer-related definitions that mean very little to a person who is new to computers or who just wants to learn about Internet-related stuff." NetLingo's main aim then is to provide a handy reference for people who might be quite new to this medium and who want to also have some fun while learning. By reading through it, I suddenly became aware of a distinct conversational style, which sets the book apart from many other references I have seen (for example, the Oxford University Dictionary of the Internet, reviewed here back in the November 2001 column). Thanks to its friendliness and colloquial character, one could actually end up reading NetLingo as if it were a normal book: from cover to cover! And on a more sensorial level, I found the unusual paper format somehow inviting: it vaguely reminded me of a Michelin guide or a restaurant directory ... by just looking at it I simply wanted to pick it up and read it.

But what about the content? Reviewing a dictionary about the Internet is always a thorny affair, especially if it is printed: with new terms being coined nearly on a weekly basis, looking for completeness means knowing a priori that it will be a fruitless task. Nevertheless, NetLingo definitely features a lot of entries and at 500+ pages, this little tome can come in handy in most situations where specific terms or concepts related to the Internet need to be looked up.

Allow me to digress a little at this point: the unfortunate aspect of computer-mediated communication (CMC) is that, although being now very widespread, many of its conventions are not appreciated by a huge number of recent adopters. For example, just a few days ago I followed a discussion on a private university conferencing system in which a lecturer claimed that "putting the same information in multiple places is called spamming." As many know, however, the exact definition of spam is concerned with mass-mailing or cross-posting rather than with sending one e-mail about something to one forum and another similar message to another forum, in which the topic can also be considered relevant. So, my immediate reaction was the realisation that there is a definite perception of "terminology fluidity": anybody can assign to CMC terms the meaning he or she wishes, according to how it best fits the situation. And it is here that good education in CMC should begin; by becoming proficient with the terminology already established. The same, of course, applies to the countless examples of acronyms which everybody takes for granted but that remain obscure to the majority of users: ISDN, ISP, HTML, FTP, and so on.

Going back to NetLingo, how good is it at educating us? The dictionary is divided into separate sections, encompassing the dictionary itself (over 400 pages), lists of acronyms and expressions, emoticons, straight-on-smilies, country codes, and file extensions, plus categorised indices of cyberslang, organisations & initiatives, companies, people, and more.

While commending the effort put into most of these lists, I must confess in advance that I always found directories of so-called "useful expressions" fairly superfluous, yes even detrimental to our language. The phrases they present are used mostly in chat rooms and there is no rational reason why anybody would want to learn that SWMBO signifies "she who must be obeyed" or that TLK2UL8R is "talk to you later" (the latter, incidentally, probably takes less to type than its cryptic "shortened" version).

Fortunately abbreviations of this type only take up about 25 pages, which does not add much bulk to the book. The dictionary proper is as exhaustive as it could be. Apart from the numerous and typical entries such as easter egg or cookies, I have found some real esoteric and probably quite localised terms: barbie bird, for example.

The definitions are typically very accurate and show that a great deal of research took place during preparation of the book (and online version). I was particularly pleased to discover that NetLingo identifies explicitly the difference between Internet and internet (with a lower-case 'i'). A not insignificant fact which is being unjustly overlooked more and more, even by those who should know better (CMC lecturer!) Moreover, Jensen and James must be the only people around who still capitalize the word 'web' as in Web page; after all, we are not talking about a spider web here and it is nice to give the World-Wide-Web (note the capital 'W'!) some special status. Overall, then, the dictionary is a true linguistic treasure: it will provide avid readers with the right expression, every time, and at any level.

Having said that, I did find the odd annoyances even with this dictionary. Although no reference can be perfect or totally comprehensive, care should be given when deciding what to put in and what to leave out. For example, while many key players of the industry have been identified, Cerf, Metcalfe, Torvalds, Wozniak, Moore, to name but a few, I could immediately think of at least one major individual who was not listed: Jon Postel. The lesson is: there is always an inherent danger in compiling authoritative lists, as something will always be forgotten.

More of a personal disappointment was the fact that even NetLingo (like other dictionaries I have consulted) fails to include an entry for mailto: Think about it, this code element appears probably on nearly every single Web site in cyberspace, yet, you will not find its meaning explained anywhere, which is a curious thing.

Although a rare occurrence, there was the odd definition which was either not fully explained, or was inaccurate. For example, when discussing alpha and beta releases, no mention was made of the fact that in beta the feature set is frozen, while in alpha it can still be expanded; in the entry on anonymous FTP the fact that no account is necessary to access data should have been complemented by the important notion that usually the username is 'anonymous' while the password is the user's e-mail address. On AOL it reports that "eventually, the company who owns it, America Online, grew big enough to provide Internet access, acquire a number of Internet sites (including Netscape), and merge with Time Warner." Well, I worked for Netscape Communications and it was not only a Web site, but an actual company!

Finally, although the dictionary is strictly in alphabetical order, I did come across at least an instance where the word was not where I expected it: digerati appeared between digitizer and direct connection. The mystery was solved when I read the first line of the entry: "a.k.a. digiterati".

But I am being deliberately pernickety now and if you were to judge NetLingo only from my 'negative' comments it would not do justice to this excellent work. Picking on some very isolated cases was, in fact, necessary to demonstrate that here quality and accuracy have been given a very high priority. In truth, I would recommend NetLingo to anybody who wishes to become more fluent in IT-speak, while at the same time enjoying a good read. There is so much to learn once you get started; for once, turn off the computer and become an Internet guru the easy way! - Paolo G. Cordone.

Copyright by FirstMonday.org -- Thank You Paolo!

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