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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

beta version

(1990’s | computerese | “dry run,” “preliminary version,” “demo”)

Ineligible for the blog on both historical and semantic grounds, but it seems to be creeping into contexts other than testing computer software. Even now, the association with computers remains strong if not quite inevitable: a stage of software development in which the product is not ready for sale but is ready to be tested on a large scale by real live users, not just the developer’s own engineers. (The latter stage is known as “alpha testing” when it is referred to at all.) The cynical way to look at this is that the developer gets lots of work done for nothing, although most will offer discounts to beta testers on the finished product. The phrase required some explaining at first, but now everyone knows what it means: On April Fool’s Day, Google invited users to test the beta version of Google Nose, which enables users to search by odor (Google, of course, is famous for keeping some of its products in the beta stage for years).

According to Wikipedia and at least one other source, “alpha” and “beta” in this sense were broken in by IBM computer jocks long ago, well before the personal computer was thought of. It was widely used in talking about both hardware and software certainly by the late eighties, if not before, but it didn’t turn up much in the mainstream until some time in the nineties. (I believe that’s when I became familiar with the concept.) Beta versions are for the expert or adventurous, or for employees of large corporations who act as guinea pigs. Ordinary shlubs like me avoid beta versions; let somebody else step on all the landmines. (Hey, it’s not like most software doesn’t have plenty of bugs and glitches even after rollout.)

One descendant, “beta reader,” has cropped up recently in the realm of fan fiction, where it means something like “editor.” Here again, it refers to a reader at a certain stage of the development of the text, not in its roughest form but not finished, either; the idea is that the beta reader will help the author improve the story and get it ready for publication, posting, or whatever comes next. In this sense it obviously derives from the old computer-industry use but may point the way to a new set of meanings. Watch this space.

early adopter

(1990’s | academese? advertese? | “pioneer,” “early bird” )

The interesting thing about “early adopter” is that its meaning has never varied in the slightest, and while its range of use has broadened a bit, neither its denotation nor connotation has changed to speak of. Someone who snaps up a new practice or product as it becomes available — someone interested in the latest technologies, brands, or services. From the beginning, the expression has had a strong connection with technological advance, and it still does, although nowadays it may freely be used in talking about customs, rules, or attitudes. That was not true in the 1980’s.

The earliest uses recorded in LexisNexis date from the early 1980’s, concentrated in the banking press. It was not long before “early adopter” was taken up in computer circles, and the term quickly became common in talking about (i.e., promoting) new personal computers, network technology, operating systems, etc. The term likely was coined by the economist Everett Rogers, who invented a field by publishing a book called “Diffusion of Innovation” in 1962, in which he classifies people according to how quickly they adopt new things; one of the classes was “early adopter,” who weren’t the very first to pick up the latest thing (those are the “innovators”) but who come right after and presage wide consumption or use. Most of us are content to follow our own English Pope:

Be not the first by whom the new is tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.

Marketers were probably the first to use the term regularly, and it was rarely seen outside the business or computer press until at least the mid-1990’s; it was rendered in quotation marks as late as 1999 in US News and World Report. But that wasn’t really typical. Mostly the phrase is used without any particular notice or explanation, and that has been true for a long time. (Rogers dubbed the last to lay the old aside “laggards” — those who take up innovations slowly (not until they are already obsolete) or not at all. I’m a laggard.)

The phrase has long had a strong correlation with favorable terms like “forward-thinking” or “progressive.” An early adopter typically is not seen as an uncritical, superficial customer who will walk out with anything that is sold as the dernier cri, but as a discerning shopper who is quick to see the advantages of the latest technology. Early adopters are usually thought to be knowledgeable and well-off — people you want to know and emulate. There’s no reason for this that I can see except that the people who use the phrase are also the people who have a strong interest in inducing early adopters to buy whatever it is they happen to be selling. So they need to flatter the adventurous ones willing to endure bugs and kinks, because success with that group portends general success. You don’t go describing your client base as gullible, hysterical, or lacking wisdom. With that goes a tendency to denigrate the laggards as stuck in the mud, out of the loop, and selfishly standing in the way of progress. So all those of us who didn’t spend money on Beta videocassettes, New Coke, the DeLorean, or WebTV, are losers. Time to repent. Go thou forth and bankrupt thyself on every crummy two-bit novelty that comes down the pike.

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