Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Happy New Year, all!

I’ve just finished defending my dissertation proposal, so I’ve been a bit quiet of late. But today, I figured I’d address something that’s been on my to-discuss list for a while now.

I’ve noticed, within a certain particularly tech-y demographic, a new conversational construction, s/X/Y:

jamiew - RESTKit is a thing of evil, apparently :/

eddieroger - @jamiew s/evil/awesome (Conversation Link)

pth - “The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.” /via Gordon Gekko

swombat - @pth s/greed/intelligent self-interest/g Stupid, short-sighted greed is bad. Long-term, intelligent, thought through, well considered greed is awesome. (Conversation Link)

A Fascinating Borrowing

This is completely opaque to most people, but the s/onething/anotherthing construction comes from the Search and Replace syntax in the Vim text editor, a program designed primarily for people who write lots of code.

Let’s say you’re using Vim and you’ve written the below line:

I’m going to go to the park tomorrow, and once we get to the park, we’ll eat ice cream that we’ll buy from a vendor at the park.

Imagine your plans change, and you’re going to the mall instead, but everything else is true. Using Vim, you can just move to that line and type:

:s/park/mall/g

… and the line will change to:

I’m going to go to the mall tomorrow, and once we get to the mall, we’ll eat ice cream that we’ll buy from a vendor at the mall.

(The final ‘g’, optional in conversation, specifies that it changes every occurence in the line, not just the first one. Used properly, interestingly enough, in the second response.)

So, in the above conversations, the first responder is simply saying that “it’s not evil, it’s awesome”, and the second is replacing “greed” in the statement with “intelligent self-interest”. Both are happening in a far more efficient way (in terms of character count) than the natural language “Not evil, but awesome!” construction, perfect for services like App.net.

This is particularly interesting to me, as it represents a borrowing of a construction not from a different natural language, but from a text command within a computer program. Also interesting is that, much like “rofl”, there’s no way to speak the expression casually, aside from just paraphrasing with “Not, evil, but awesome!”.

Unfortunately, to use this effectively, the reader needs to have some knowledge of Vim syntax, or at least, of the meaning of the construction. So, much like with medical shorthand (“2y s/p mi” for “He had a heart attack 2 years ago”), the efficiency of the construction relies on you and your reader sharing knowledge about the world.

But it’s still interesting, and definitely worth discussing and sharing.

s/discussing/using EVERYWHERE!


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