February 21, 2006

Pinging people

Talking of ping (as Mark just was), I recently noticed a friend of mine — an audio production expert in Australia (not in the computer business) — using the transitive verb ping to mean "send email to". That's not the generally accepted meaning. There is a Unix command ping that sends a series of packets to a designated IP address and reports on what comes back (some versions give a message like "unix.ucsc.edu is alive"), so you can check on whether that machine is working, independently of whether it is serving up web pages, or whether a person using it is replying to your emails. The English verb mostly comes from that (reinforced by the earlier sonar use, perhaps, but that wasn't commonly used in this sense before the modern age of ubitquitous net technology). Pinging and emailing are different. But you can see the route of semantic change to this very reasonable secondary meaning: we often send emails to each other just to say "Are you there?" or "Did you get that last message of mine", and that is just like pinging a human being. My friend appears to have just generalized this to sending an email for any purpose, not just to check whether someone is alive.

[Update: Nori Heikkinen of Swarthmore College tells me that in fact this usage is known elsewhere: in the community of people who work at Google in Mountain View, California, it is now quite common. Doubtless it is spreading fast, and has reached Australia via the international techie grapevine. I am not assuming that just because I noticed it this month it therefore originates recently. That would be the recency illusion again.]

By the way, with regard to the false story about the word originating as an acronym from packet Internet gopher, first, that seems syntactically odd (surely Internet packet gopher would sound more like English), and second, Internet has never been two words (Inter- is a prefix), so the result should have been a Unix command called pig, right? I'm glad that isn't what happeened. "I pigged him, but he didn't answer." Ugly.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 21, 2006 09:22 AM