It Takes a Village to Raise a Word

One of my pet peeves is declarations of what words mean, especially when such declarations dispute conventional wisdom. If most people think a word means something, that's what it means.

This morning Cory Doctorow was apparently in a bad mood, unleashing such scathing grade school recess-worthy rants as Westchester proposes stupid no-open-WiFi law -- stupid! As a general rule, if you find yourself using the word "stupid" twice in the same headline, you should probably wait until you've regained enough mindfulness to come up with a decent synonym before posting. (Dumb, moronic, idiotic, dense, ... there's no shortage.

But anyway, in the middle of this mood, Cory decided to play language police. In particular, Cory is pretty sure he knows what that word "WiFi" means:

The article's great, though inexplicably, the reporter feel sthe need to point out that WiFi is "short for wireless fidelity." Of course, this isn't true...

Fairly certain I'd seen WiFi defined as "wireless fidelity," I consulted Google, which offers ten defintions for "WiFi." Half of those offer the phrase "wireless fidelity" as the meaning of "WiFi." So I wrote in to point out that despite what Cory might want the word to mean, the reporter in question was actually offering a definition in common use, certainly not inexplicable. (I do not think that word means what he thinks it means.)

Apparently other people wrote similar comments, so Cory posted an update:

30,000 or so people have written in to quibble over whether WiFi stands for wireless fidelity.

And he went on to post another paragraph about why these people are wrong. But he's missing the point. It doesn't matter what you want a word to mean, or even what a word should mean. A word means whatever it can successfully communicate. If half the internet thinks "WiFi" means "wireless fidelity" then that's what it means. Cory can post updates for months, but the meaning of the word will still be found in its actual use. Because that's how communication works.

"Quibble" is a good word, because that's what Cory has done here. That's all anyone can do when they see a good word go bad. However much we might like to, we simply can't force the world to adopt our own definitions. I'm amazed that Cory, a professional writer, doesn't realize this.

But is wifi a trademark, like hoover?
Yes, but trademarks don't govern how words are used in common speech.

Be number 3:

knows half of 8 is