Paul McFedries on “Bitcoinages”

Paul McFedries comments on the explosion of new terms surrounding cryptocurrencies, which he calls “Bitcoinages.” Whatever cryptocurrency technology may be or may ultimately mean, it “is generating new words and phrases at an inflationary rate” and has come to the notice of lexicographers and English majors.

Putting on my Anthropologist hat (which might be a weathered bush hat, no?), I’d say this is normal. Cryptocurrency is both new and also an intensely community oriented phenomenon, so it stands to reason that we’ll create new words for these ideas.

Putting on my technologist hat (which must be virtual, because we don’t wear hats, no?), I’ll say that it is totally normal and necessary to create new terminology as we figure out new tech. Generally speaking, hunt for the new words, because that will be where the cutting edge is (or was six months ago).

McFedries correctly notes that the new terms surrounding cryptocurrencies are still confused and unsettled. Partly, as he says, no one knows what it really is. Money? Commodity? Information protocol? It’s all of those things at the same time.

He calls out the important term “trustless”, though he does not point out how this particular “bitcoinage” subverts the literal meaning of the term. He also misses the amazingly important dichotomy, “centralized/decentralized”. Everything “centralized” is “bad” (and vice versa), and “decentralized” is “good”. These terms are almost Orwellian in their level of ideological tilt.

McFedries recognizes the importance of scripture, in the form of the Nakamoto Document, though much of the nomenclature is found in this Ur-document. He does not consider other questions of origin (much of the terminology comes out of US Libertarian scripture), or of the fascinating rhetoric surrounding alt coins. Technically nearly identical, each alt coin is said to be “just as good as” or “better than” the great patriarch, Bitcoin. Every cryptochild is above average.

References to the authority of (crypto)scripture are an interesting phenomenon in the cryptocommunity.  This year has seen fierce debates over important technical changes to Bitcoin. In these nominally technical arguments, it is common to see claims that one or the other alternative is truer to the original vision in the holy Nakamoto document.  That such arguments are considered germane, let alone possibly persuasive, tells us that this is certainly not a simple technical project, but a sociotecnical and cultural project.

I think McFedries pays too much heed to the cryptocurrency literature when he ponders whether “As Bitcoin slouches toward the mainstream, it has generated a lot of new words, but will it generate enough users to supplant our current system”. This inevitably leads to comparisons to other fashionable technologies including PCs, Facebook, and SecondLife.

Here he is ignorant. There are zillions of new words generated in sociotechnical arenas, every new technology gets new terms. (Plus, commercial companies invent their own “brand names” that add to the mix.) This has little to do with the eventual uptake and dissemination of the technology. It is driven by the need to talk about new concepts.

However, the fact that lexicographers and English majors in general know these words–and even understand them more or less correctly–clearly indicates that Bitcoin is already “mainstream”.  But that does not mean that any of the dreams of the enthusiastic true believers will come true.


Cryptocurrency Thursday

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