“Look it up” – or why we don’t have a word for “to internet”

 

The other day I was listening to the Escape Pod podcast with the lovely Alasdair Stuart, and he made a claim – I can’t now remember what – then said “Go on, look it up”.

And of course I knew that what he didn’t mean was “go to the library and look it up in an encyclopaedia”. What he meant was, “get online and check the veracity of my words there”.

Which reminded me once again that we don’t have a verb for “to internet”.

I mean, yes, you can Google something. But what if you don’t need to go via Google? What if, instead, you click on a bookmark or type straight into the address bar to take yourself to Wikipedia? What if, like me, you “look stuff up” every day, sometimes hundreds of times a day, using dictionaries, terminology resources, EU legislation and so on – all of which you have permanently open in browser tabs? Am I “looking up” or “tabbing”?

wiki

But then of course looking stuff up isn’t the only thing we do online. We also use social media, waste hours on Bored Panda, try to beat our own records on Sporcle, watch Netflix, flirt on Tinder… And you can’t describe all of those things with a single verb.

It’s that very versatility which makes it impossible to neatly describe the activity. When you “watch TV”, that’s all you do. If you “use the phone” – at least in the old-fashioned sense of an instrument for calling someone who will then turn out not to be at home – again, that is all you can do with it. But the fact that the internet is more of another world than a piece of technology means that it’s difficult to limit the purposes to which we put it with one nice tidy term.

One thing I’m sure that none of us is doing is “surfing”. I have never “surfed the web” in my entire 25+ years of online existence. I’m sure it’s a term invented – and used – by people who would, in a previous life, have called a radio “the wireless” and cars “horseless carriages”. The kind of person who might have used the term “information superhighway” in cold blood.

And anyway, “surf” is such a misnomer. Even if you’ve got a reasonable connection speed, there’s nothing remotely graceful or linear about your progress through/across/in/on the internet. Hopscotch might be more like it, but even that usually involves having some kind of idea where you’re going. My feeling is that if you plotted most people’s online activities, the best description of their movement style and content would be “buggering about”.

And that’s my suggestion. If has the merit of being logical, descriptive and – above all – accurate.

So next time I go to say “I’ll just look that up”, I’m going to make the effort to be truthful and instead say “I’m just going to bugger about for a bit”. And when, 45 minutes later, I snap out of my digitally induced stupor and find that I’m deep into an article about how gecko tape works (it’s fascinating stuff… look it up) then at least I’ll be able to say that I meant to be there all along.

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