In the 1997 gem “The Kids’ Guide to the Internet” – now immortalised on YouTube forever – a couple of baby-faced kids in baggy clothes and bad ’90s haircuts attempt to explain this magical new thing called the Internet to their friends.
“There are three important services you can use to access the internet,” one boy begins. “Surfing the web –”
“Surfing!” interrupts another kid. “That sounds pretty cool already!”
And golly gee, it is! You can surf these things called Web pages, his pals tell him. You can surf MTV. You can surf the Smithsonian archives, even!
None of this has changed in the ensuing 18 years, of course, besides kids’ smiley, easily awed enthusiasm. But nobody – and I mean nobody – still says they surf the Internet.
In fact, according to Mark Davies’ Corpus of Contemporary English, use of the term peaked right at the turn of the century.
Why exactly did that happen?
“Very often when there’s a new technological development, we look for metaphorical language to try to explain it,” explains Ben Zimmer, a linguist and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal. That’s true of much of modern tech parlance – from the idea of “tweeting” to the Web itself.
The problem with these tech metaphors, Zimmer says, is that they don’t have a whole lot of staying power – particularly when it comes to something like the Internet, where a very high premium is put on novelty and timeliness.
Online, there is nothing less cool than lag. In fact, I’m probably dating myself by using the word “cool” at all. I should say “hot.” Or “sick.” Or “on fleek.”
“In the case of ‘surfing the Web,’” Zimmer says, “what might have seemed like a fun and catchy metaphor in the late ’90s soon grew stale from overuse. And in techie talk, there’s nothing worse than sounding outdated.”
Unless you’re being ironic, of course. That’s still hot/sick/cool.