I found myself in a regrettable spot last month, cornered by confusion over a word.
The word was “blog.”
I hadn’t really thought about the definition of the word for several years. I was working at The New York Times when the term came into use around 2000. Like other publications, The Times usually offered a short definition of the word so readers understood what it meant: It’s a shortened form of “Weblog,” a site that contains a series of posts, links and other material.
As “blog” became more familiar, the definitions diminished. By 2013, I thought, the term was clear.
At one point in the spring semester, several students told me they planned to create “a blog” as part of a final project. Great, I said. Excellent idea. When they submitted the project, those students had each created a single blog post. When I asked where the rest of the blogs were, they looked puzzled. They said they had planned to create “a blog,” and each of them had, they said.
That is, to them, “blog” meant a single blog post.
Had I checked, I’d have found that “blog” is in the top 30 percent of terms that people look up on Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary. That surprised me when I found it today. In hindsight, it suggests that the word isn’t as clear as I’d thought it was.
In a post on Slate’s culture blog, Brow Beat, last week, Forrest Wickman said much the same thing. He expressed frustration about the increasing use of “blog” to mean “blog post,” and he implored people to use the term correctly. He wrote:
The No. 1 reason to make this change—and I’m not going to sugarcoat this—is that calling a post a blog makes you sound stupid. That may seem harsh, but I’m doing you a favor. Every time you make this mistake, it sounds like you don’t understand this newfangled thing, the World Wide Web. Even if you think all those who might judge you are just being superficial, that’s not going to stop them from judging you.
The next time my students tell me they plan to write “a blog,” I’ll make sure we have the same definition. I may even have them read Wickman’s article. Better yet, maybe I’ll have them read William Safire’s dismissive explanation from 2002:
Blog is a shortening of Web log. It is a Web site belonging to some average but opinionated Joe or Josie who keeps what used to be called a ”commonplace book” — a collection of clippings, musings and other things like journal entries that strike one’s fancy or titillate one’s curiosity. What makes this online daybook different from the commonplace book is that this form of personal noodling or diary-writing is on the Internet, with links that take the reader around the world in pursuit of more about a topic.
To set one up (which I have not done because I don’t want anyone to know what I think), you log on to a free service like blogger.com or xanga.com, fill out a form and let it create a Web site for you. Then you follow the instructions about how to post your thoughts, photos and clippings, making you an instant publisher. You then persuade or coerce your friends, family or colleagues to log on to you and write in their own loving or snide comments.
This all makes me feel so retro.