Wiki Becomes a Word

Elton Billings  

March 16, 2007

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According to story in Reuters, “wiki” has now been proclaimed a real word by the Oxford English Dictionary.

I find this somewhat troubling. I have been treating “wiki” as a real word for many years. I find it used in news and magazine articles constantly. Anyone who works in any web-related field certainly understands its meaning. And all this time we have been using an unofficial word.

So it has been a long journey for this collection of four letters to become a real word, but it has been worth the wait. When someone says “wiki,” there is a strong shared meaning. Others either know the word or do not, but do not mistake if for something else.

There is a bit of power in inventing a term for something new, rather than just pulling together terms already in existence (I know, I know. “Wiki” is a derivative of “wikiwiki.” But being a derivative, it is new.) A wiki could also have simply been called “an open page” or “collaborative web” or some other combination of existing words. If that had been the case, imagine the chaos that might have insued as various companies and factions tried to include their own sites under such an umbrella term.

If someone says “wiki” we generally agree on what that means.

This is in sharp constrast to other ideas which have been expressed in terminology that is just a recombination of existing words. Take “user experience designer” for example. I know exactly what it means, and you probably do, also. But if you get eight web folks in a room and ask, you will get at least nine opinions about the exact meaning.

This same lack of common meaning is true of much of the vocabulary we have been forced to establish as the web has evolved to prominence. Remember “webmaster?” Luckily, that has fallen from common usage, because it was so vague as to be almost meaningless. And “web page” is becoming increasingly inaccurate, since what you are seeing in your browser is likely a set of templates used to display a collection of content objects and applications. The term “web page” is a just holdover from thinking about the web by relating it the more familiar idea of a book or magazine page.

But, I have hope. We eventually stopped using the term “horseless carriage” in favor of terms such as “automobile,” “car,” and “taxi.” And no one says “picture show” any more unless they are a Rocky Horror fan. I think new terminology will evolve to replace some of the interim descriptions we’ve been using, and it can’t be soon enough for me. Let the names begin!