How a prefix went from grounded to virtual
MAYBE “SUDDENLY hot prefix” isn’t a phrase you utter in everyday conversation, but if you’ve noticed the rise of geo- lately, you might be tempted.
Geo- used to be reserved for a set of fairly staid words: geography, geology, geometry. If you wanted to get fancy, you could reach for geodesy (the study of the measurement of the earth, and the root of the geodesic dome) or geomancy (telling the future by how dirt falls when thrown).
All of these words had a grounded quality — fitting for a prefix that came directly from an ancient Greek word meaning “earth.”
Over time, geo acquired a note of abstraction, of detachment from the ground itself. World events gave us geopolitical and geostrategy. The space race gave us geostationary — an orbit that puts a satellite in a steady position over the earth. There’s also the emerging field of geoengineering, large-scale manipulation of the planet to help mitigate the effects of global warming.
But lately we’re seeing a whole new set of geo- words come into common use, all accelerated by the rise of geodata. This is the location data created and emitted by cellphones and other devices equipped with GPS — devices that know where they are, and can remember and upload that information.
Any information you send from your GPS-enabled cellphone (such as pictures you post to Flickr, or tweets you send via Twitter) can be geotagged, marked with information about where you were when you took the photo or sent the tweet. Geoblogging involves marking your blog posts with geotags. Programs that send out or rely on geodata are sometimes called geoapps, and many new geoapps are based on the principle of geotility, giving you information that is useful to you where you are.
This kind of geoknowledge has created a whole new set of possibilities in the business world. Merchandisers can geotarget their ads, determining a user’s location from their IP address. Start-ups offering geolocation services — such as Foursquare or Gowalla — let users deliberately broadcast and share their locations with each other. This, of course, can lead to geomarketing, hitting consumers with marketing messages based on where they happen to be at any moment.
If you’ve ever tried to watch video on the BBC’s site in the United States (or on Hulu’s site in other countries) you might have encountered geofiltering or geoblocking, which restricts online content, especially video, to people in a particular geographic area.
Another interesting geo-idea is the geofence, a virtual boundary set up with the aid of GPS coordinates, usually in order to trigger some action or alert when crossing it. Geofences are already being used to track delivery people, rental cars, and wildlife in parks, and soon they’re expected to become more widespread — you might find yourself crossing a geofence near your favorite coffee shop, and suddenly a coupon for a free latte shows up on your cellphone.
The increased availability of GPS-enabled devices over the last 10 years has also led to the invention of a geo-game — geocaching, a kind of treasure hunt where you search (guided by GPS coordinates) for caches left by others. Caches are usually little waterproof containers with logbooks (to record that you found the cache) and sometimes little trinkets to share or trade. One popular trinket is a geocoin, a collectible coin that is either moved from cache to cache and tracked online, or kept as a trophy. Geotokens are less-expensive, laminated-paper geocaching markers that are also collected and traded. Not everyone is content to swap tokens and make entries in logbooks: Geosmashers deliberately ruin caches, sometimes in the name of environmentalism.
Some people are calling this whole new field of people making their own connections between data and place neogeography (or, sometimes, neo-geo) and use it to describe everything from geotagging their vacation photos to those “Where’s Santa Now?” maps news stations display on Christmas Eve.
The new eruption of geo-words has created an interesting shift for the prefix itself. In this neo-geography, the world is no longer defined by a single map of the terrain — it’s a collection of multiple, overlapping virtual maps that only certain people can see. Geo- has changed from being a prefix concerned with our entire large, real, physical planet to being one that indicates a tight focus on one particular place, or even one person.
Its rise offers an interesting contrast to the decline in cyber-type words — cyberspace, cyberchat — which implied we were abandoning our real-world locations to hang out in some placeless virtual world. Some folks are calling this new geo-smart realm the geoweb. The promise of this new domain — and its prefix of choice — is that the limitless information we’ve come to expect in the online world is now crossing over to the “real” one, right to wherever on Earth we’re standing.
Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com.