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Translation, Please! America Is Speaking A Whole New Language

Eileen Glanton Associated Press

Bad day at the cube farm? It might be time for a round of blamestorming. After all, if you have another salmon day like this one, you’ll go postal.

America is speaking a whole new language. Obsessed by careers, wired to the Web and bombarded by news, Americans are imbuing the English language with slang inspired by the workplace and high technology.

Cole Barber, a mechanical engineer at Silicon Gaming in Palo Alto, Calif., works in a “cube farm”: an office where rows of cubicles take the place of private offices. When he needs a little break, he’s likely to “prairie dog,” popping up from his desk to see what his officemates are doing.

“Instead of asking if we have time to do something or aptitude to handle a project, (clients) want to know if we have the ‘bandwidth,”’ said Chris Lind, an executive at public relations agency Neale-May and Partners.

A decade ago, a slightly distracted person may have been called an airhead, or “out to lunch.” Today, said Gareth Branwyn, who compiles Wired magazine’s monthly Jargon Watch column, he’s “404.”

“It’s from the Web message that means a document couldn’t be found; there’s nothing there,” Branwyn said.

Slang is nearly as old as speech itself, and changes constantly, said Bernabe Feria, director of curriculum for Berlitz language schools. Writers as far back as Shakespeare have given slang a place in literature, and virtually every language has its own substandard speech, he noted.

American slang has often come from whatever dominates the public’s consciousness. The Prohibition era gave rise to “hooch” and a slew of new ways to say “drunk,” including “crocked” and “plastered.” During the Jazz Age, men were “cats,” and some were “cool.” The hippie, trippy 1960s taught Americans to “turn on” to things that were often “far out.”

Today, with so many people working and watching the stock market lift their 401(k) accounts, business is on people’s minds. So it’s no wonder, experts say, that many of today’s slang terms come from the office.

In the new slang, acronyms are hot. Web sites nearly all have a “FAQ,” a list of frequently asked questions. A recent guide to e-mail etiquette given to Cowles Business Media employees approved the occasional use of BTW (by the way), FWIW (for what it’s worth) and RTM.

FYI, that means read the manual.

If all this sounds just a little too hip, a tad too contrived, that, too, is a sign of the times, linguists say.

“Slang has a certain raciness, a lack of formality,” said Feria. “That’s why it is not all usable in standard situations.”

It’s also no coincidence that many of the people well versed in the new slang work in the high-tech industry. The Silicon Valley subculture of long hours, a highly technical discipline and young workers is fertile ground for creating a common language, Feria said.

For example, Eric Middleton, a sales representative for Oracle Corp., must carry a beeper for his job. He said his colleagues use the word “beepilepsy” to describe the way people twitch when their pagers vibrate. The term came to them the way much of the current slang travels - via e-mail.

Graham Spencer, a founder of Internet company Excite Inc., said while it’s not quite true that techies rely solely on e-mail, they may dub their personal meetings “interfaces.”

“It’s a very insular community and sometimes we are guilty of communicating only with each other,” he said.

Of course, not everyone talks this way. Complaining about “geeksploitation” may fly in Silicon Valley, but probably not in an accounting firm or a department store, experts say.

The young hipsters coining the phrases may need to be especially cautious, said Bruce Tulgan, founder of Rainmaker Thinking, a consulting group centered on Generation X. “If you’re speaking in a way that’s not familiar to managers or to older co-workers, it can give the impression of disrespect or arrogance,” Tulgan said.

What makes some slang terms stick (like “cool” or “kid”) while others slide right back out of popular culture (think “gnarly” and “grody”) is difficult to determine, Feria said.

“Going postal,” inspired by a rash of workplace shootings by post-office employees, may stick, Branwyn said.

Others may be obsolete already, Feria said.

“It’s almost a whim,” he said. “Words constantly come and go. Languages are living things.”

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