“Could you search up that site?” my kid asked me many years ago, and I still remember the following exchange. I felt the need to let him know, “It’s okay to use informal language when it is just us hanging out in the kitchen, but just so you know that’s incorrect grammar, I think you meant ‘search for.'” I was surprised when he corrected me. “Search for means something different,” he said. “You search for something when you are looking for something and you aren’t sure what you’ll find. If you know exactly which website you want to find, you search up the site.” This was a very precise definition. It was the accepted usage of those particular verb phrases by all the other fourth graders or middle schoolers or whatever age they all were at the time.

I wonder whether this turn of phrase was influenced by the user interface innovation that tied search engines to the URL bar in the browser. I still remember when radio ads would spell out h t t p : / / w w w before the website name. I can’t remember if we really had to type in all those letters in Netscape 2, or what year it was when the people who make the browsers realized that of all the apps in the world, this one could actually depend on the Internet being on, and maybe we could just suggest to people what they might want. After all why do we need two huge text edit boxes on our screen, one for Uniform Resource Locators that we need to parse to find a particular machine and the other for some text so we can look across many documents on many machines.

We change how we act based on the options available to us. We adapt to the reality around us. Then when enough of us have acquired new behaviors, then we can invent new ways to interact that are only possible because of the previous generation of people and tech. Our language reflects where we are and where we have been.

I still dial my phone, even though I’m actually tapping it. I rewind videos on YouTube. I wonder as I type these words on a keyboard that was designed for mechanical key to press ink into paper… what are the literal actions of today that will become the metaphors of tomorrow?

One thought on “search, urls, and the evolution of language

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