We have jargon, we have words, we have phrases…we have terms. Can words become terms? How would that happen? And has “the cloud” arrived as a technical concept yet?
Cloud, as a word, is part of our everyday vocabulary. With the summer over, it’ll again be part of our daily lives in the Pacific Northwest for the next eight months. On the right is a good definition from the Merriam Webster Learner’s Dictionary. The Learner’s Dictionary is not concerned with technical language, as it is compiled for non-native speakers. So, the definition doesn’t allude to the fact that clouds, in a related sense, are also part of the field of meteorology and therefore part of a language for special purposes (LSP).
When common everyday words are used in technical communication and with specialized meaning, they have become terms through a process called terminologization. Is cloud, as in cloud computing, there yet? Or is it still in this murky area where marketing babel meets technical communication? It certainly was initially.
Here is a great blog on when cloud was used for the first time. Author John M. Willis asked his Twitter followers Who Coined The Phrase Cloud Computing? and could then trace back the first occurrences to May of 1997 and a patent application for “cloud computing” by NetCentric; then to a 1999 NYT article that referred to a Microsoft “cloud of computers”, and finally to a speech by Google’s Eric Schmidt who Willis says he would pick as the moment when the cloud metaphor became mainstream.
That was 2006, and “the cloud” may have become part of the tech world’s hype, but it wasn’t a technical term with a solid and clearly delineated definition. As Willis points out “cloud computing was a collection of related concepts that people recognized, but didn’t really have a good descriptor for, a definition in search of a term, you could say.”
Yes, we had the designator, but did we really have a clear definition? In my mind, everyone defined it differently. For a while, the idea of “the cloud” was batted around mostly by marketing and advertising folks whose job it is to use hip language and create positive connotations. When “the cloud” and other marketing jargon sound like dreams coming true to disposed audiences, they usually spell nightmare to terminologists. The path of a “cloud dream” into technical language is a difficult one. In 2008, I was part of a terminology taskforce within the Windows Server team who tried to nail down what cloud computing was. I believe the final definition wasn’t set when I left in May 2010.
An Azure architect evangelist (See You say Aaaazure, I say Azuuuure…) and I recently analyzed the conceptual area. Although he kept saying that some of the many companies in cloud computing these days “would also include x, y, or z,” x, y and z all turned out to not be “essential characteristics.” And we ended up with the following definition. It is based largely on the one published by Netlingo, but modified to meet more of the criteria of a terminological definition:
“A type of computing in which dynamic, scalable and virtual resources are provided over the Internet and which includes services that provide common business applications online and accessible from a Web browser, while the software and data are stored on servers.”
Wouldn’t it be great, if a terminologist could stand by to assist any time a new concept is being created somewhere? Then, we’d have nice definitions and well-formed terms and appellations right away. Since that is utopia, at least it helps to be aware that language is in flux, that marketing language might be deliberately nebulous, and that it might take time before a majority of experts have agreed on what something is and how it is different from other things around it. I think “the cloud” and “cloud computing” have been terminologized and arrived in technical language.
Nebulous marketing language, how appropriate! 🙂
I find cloud a very interesting example because it went through the terminologization process, more or less at the same time, to designate also a different concept, "a visual representation of a weighted list of text data" (as in tag cloud and word cloud). Were the underlying metaphors related, or was it a coincidence?
Needless to say, having more insight on how new concepts are created would be a tremendous help also for target terminologists, especially when terminologization occurs; for example, it would help decide if the same figurative meaning should be retained for both concepts also in the target language, or if it could be dropped without much loss (e.g. think of ribbon).
Barbara Inge Karsch says
Licia, thanks for the link to the blog about the ribbon. I am sure you had given it to me at some point and it is obviously used in one of your blog postings. I just read it again, and it is a very worthwhile read and very pertinent to this discussion.
I fully agree on the benefit that target terminologists derive from having etymological information. If there is no other data category to add this information to the entry, a context containing the term and how it came about might work.
So Barbara, I like your definition better than what we’ve got in our termbank. Can I use it? 🙂
Barbara Inge Karsch says
I would be honored if you did, Sue.
As widely publicized, the American Dialect Society chose cloud in their annual words of the year vote as the most likely to succeed word.
I find it fascinating to see how rapidly cloud has been evolving. In just a few years it has emerged from marketing jargon to become a technical term (only a couple of years ago, Visual Thesaurus felt it had to explain what a data cloud was, clarifying “it’s a term relatively new to English and it hasn’t yet settled down to a single fixed meaning”) and it is finally entering the general vocabulary of English, although as a more generic concept (at least judging from the rather unspecific definition provided by the ADS, “online space for the large-scale processing and storage of data”).
Barbara Inge Karsch says
I am not sure I would consider it “general vocabulary” yet, but it surely has been terminologized. Maybe it has been determinologized, too, and that is what you are referring too. I had thought about it in that light and couldn’t quite make the case. But thanks for your contribution, Licia–I’ll take it as an encouragement to leave other work and share new blog material soon.
Indeed, I see the ADS’s inclusion of cloud in their list (cf also app in 2010 and tweet in 2009), as a reliable indication that the word is – or soon will be – undergoing a process of determinologization. I suppose another empirical sign of determinologization is “cloud jokes” in mainstream cartoons, like this one from The Newyorker.
BTW, looking forward to seeing you back to blogging!