The origins of our Webified age were hardly auspicious. Two decades ago, Tim Berners-Lee, a British software programmer at the CERN physics-research laboratory outside Geneva, was sketching out a global system for sharing information over the Internet. A March 1989 document that he drafted with the drab title “Information Management: A Proposal” had met with minimal internal interest. Berners-Lee’s group leader, Mike Sendall, was mildly intrigued and allowed him to keep tinkering on the project, calling it “vague, but exciting.”

On Nov. 12, 1990, Berners-Lee tried his hand at a new proposal, now collaborating with the Belgian engineer Robert Cailliau. As Berners-Lee would later recount in his memoir, “Weaving the Web,” he decided some rebranding was in order, and he ran through a number of potential names for the project. One idea was Mesh, “but it sounded a little too much like mess.” Mine of Information might seem “too egocentric” when treated as an acronym, MOI, French for “me.” The Information Mine could be seen as “even more egocentric” based on its acronym: TIM, Berners-Lee’s first name.

“We had been trying to find a good name for the thing for a while,” Cailliau told me via e-mail. “CERN’s experiments and projects were usually given names of Greek or Egyptian mythological figures, and I specifically did not want that because I wanted something for the future and different. I had looked at Nordic mythology but not found anything suitable.”

Finally, Berners-Lee came up with a three-word name that suitably described the global reach of the system they were envisioning: World Wide Web. Cailliau recalls that Berners-Lee put forward the name “as a temporary measure.” They agreed to use it for their revamped proposal for CERN management, as the proposal could not be delayed any further. “If the proposal was accepted,” Cailliau said, “we would find a better name.”

They never did manage to replace that stopgap label, of course, and the 1990 proposal would forever change the English lexicon. In the original title, the three words were run together as WorldWideWeb, but Berners-Lee and Cailliau would soon separate it into World Wide Web (despite the fact that worldwide is best treated as a single word), underscoring the alliteration.

How to abbreviate the name was problematic from the beginning. “Friends at CERN gave me a hard time, saying it would never take off,” Berners-­Lee wrote in his memoir, “especially since it yielded an acronym that was nine syllables long when spoken”: double-u, double-u, double-u. Cailliau, who hailed from the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium, told me that it was not so troublesome for him, because in Dutch and other Northern European languages WWW is simply pronounced weh-weh-weh.

Another possible abbreviation was W3, but that alphanumeric version never caught on, lingering only in W3C, the abbreviation for the World Wide Web Consortium, an international standards organization that Berners-Lee founded. A 1992 paper by Berners-Lee and Cailliau pointed the way to future usage: “The W3 worldview is of documents referring to each other by links,” they wrote. “For its likeness to a spider’s construction, this world is called the Web.”

That single spidery word, capitalized or uncapitalized, would bear countless offspring. The online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary catalogs some of the most common web compounds, like web address, web browser, webcam, webcast, web crawler, web developer, web design, webinar, weblog, webmaster, webmistress, web page, web publisher, web server, web site, web surfer and webzine. (The O.E.D. might have gone overboard by including a couple of iffy web-words: webliography, for a Web-based bibliography, and webmeister, a silly alternative to webmaster.)

But that’s not all: weblog, first used in 1997 on Jorn Barger’s “Robot Wisdom Weblog,” made lexical history two years later when Peter Merholz playfully shortened it to blog. Blog soon begat a whole new generation of techno-neologisms in the blogosphere, where bloggers compile blogrolls, celebrate blogiversaries and suffer from blogorrhea. The vowel of blog can mutate, as when law blogs are called blawgs or requests via blog posts are called blegs (combining blog and beg). The “b” in these words is all that remains from its ancestor, Berners-Lee’s Web, and even that slim vestige can be lost when blog blends with other words, as in vlog (a video blog) and splog (a spam blog).

Though the appearance of the phrase World Wide Web 20 years ago was surely a crucial linguistic milestone, Berners-Lee wasn’t the first to hit upon that happy collocation. It has long been a handy journalistic designation for international spy rings, as in the 1853 notice in the London-based Weekly News and Chronicle warning of “a world-wide web of espionage” conducted by Russia under Czar Nicholas or the sensational headline in The Boston Globe of November 1914, “World-Wide Web of German Spies.”

More pertinent, the phrase also has a history among writers imagining complex communication networks. In an 1867 lecture, the English clergyman and novelist Charles Kingsley warned that the scientific advances of the day could be abused in the service of centralized oppression. “I can conceive — may God avert the omen! — centuries hence, some future world-ruler sitting at the junction of all railroads, at the centre of all telegraph-wires — a world-spider in the omphalos of his world-wide web.”

Thankfully, the web of information that Berners-Lee and Cailliau first wove has developed in a highly decentralized fashion, with no “world-spider” in control of the whole thing. And that has allowed the language of the Web to flourish in ways that its innovators could never have foreseen, all derived from a name that was merely a “temporary measure.”

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.


Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/14/magazine/14FOB-onlanguage-t.html