Word of the Month: Usenet

Usenet, n., is a distributed bulletin board system. The term is an abbreviation for users’ network. Usenet was originally implemented in 1979-1980 to link computers at Duke University with those of the University of North Carolina. The system consisted of numerous discussion forums called newsgroups. Computers that functioned as newsservers would pass messages to one another. Usenet was originally conceived to carry local news and information, hence the names. By 1996, Usenet had over 10,000 newsgroups and an average of over 500 megabytes of information posted to it daily.

Usenet was not originally part of the Internet. Instead it was originally carried by the UUCPNET network of Unix computers. By the early 1990s, however, most of Usenet was being transferred over the Internet.

Usenet newsgroups are organized into categories based on the content of the group. The first part of a newsgroup’s name designates its category:

  • alt.*, alternative, popular topics
  • comp.*, computer topics
  • humanities.*, humanities topics
  • misc.*, miscellaneous topics
  • news.*, Usenet meta-discussion
  • rec.*, recreational topics
  • sci.*, science and technology topics
  • soc.*, social and cultural topics
  • talk.*, debate and controversial topics

If you want information about computer firewalls, for example, you can go to the comp.security.firewalls group. Or if you are planning a trip to Brazil, you might check out rec.travel.latin-america. Old movie aficionados can be found on alt.movies.silent.

In addition, there may be local hierarchies carried by some newsservers. For example, the ucb.* hierarchy is for the University of California at Berkeley. There are also many other hierarchies, such as biz.*, that addresses business topics.

There are also old hierarchies that are no longer used, but one may encounter them when searching archives of Usenet posts. The first hierarchy was net.*. This was supposed to contain discussions about Usenet itself. But shortly after the hierarchy was created, the groups net.jokes and net.rumor appeared. When ARPANET was linked to Usenet in 1980, the hierarchy fa.*, for “from ARPANET,” was created. There is also the old mod.* hierarchy, which consisted of moderated newsgroups. Nowadays, the designation *.moderated is tacked on to the end of a newsgroup name to show that it is a moderated group.

For the major Usenet categories there is a formal process for proposing and approving new newsgroups. This process is waived for the alt.* hierarchy of groups where people may start groups on a whim and the rules may be different for local hierarchies. Originally, newsservers carried all the groups in the major hierarchies, with the exception of the alt.* hierarchy, which many system administrators limited. Beginning in 1987, however, the growth of the system was such that system administrators began to choose which groups in the primary hierarchies they would carry. Most newsservers give access to at least 10,000 groups.

The following are jargon terms associated with Usenet. The parenthetical information is the newsgroup and date the term first appears in the Google Groups archive of Usenet posts. This is not necessarily the earliest use of the term—often, the terms come from sources other than Usenet or the earliest posts that use them are not in the archives:

^H^H^H^H^H, jocular expression, stands for an erasure or backspace. Unix systems generate ^H symbols when the backspace key is pressed. Usenet posters type these into their messages to pretend that they are clueless Unix users attempting to delete something they just wrote. An example might be, “you are a real pain in the ass^H^H^H neck.”

AFAIK, abbrev., for As Far As I Know. (comp.sys.sun, 9 Dec 1988)

Binary, n. & adj., a digital file, often a picture or computer program. Most Usenet groups forbid the posting of binary files, limiting them to specific groups with binaries in the title. Most binaries groups are pornographic. (net.v7bugs, 25 May 1981)

BITNET, abbrev., for Because It’s There NETwork. A messaging network very similar to Usenet. Created in 1981 at the City College of New York. Very successful among universities, it did not survive transition to the Internet. Support for BITNET was ended in 1996, but some of its groups still survive. They can be recognized by their bit.* hierarchy.

BOA, abbrev., for Ban On Acronyms, Many Usenet groups frown upon acronyms and abbreviations because they are confusing to people who do not understand what they mean. The acronym BOA is, of course, facetious. (alt.folklore.urban, 10 Nov 1994)

BOP, abbrev., for Ban On Politics. Many Usenet groups have a rule against discussing political topics. (soc.culture.lebanon, 4 Feb 1995)

BTW, abbrev., for By The Way. (fa.sf-lovers, 13 May 1981)

Cancelbot, n., a program that deletes Usenet messages after they have been posted. The term is from cancel + [ro]bot. Cancelbots are usually used to delete spam. (alt.magick, 4 Oct 1993)

Cascade, n., an automated chain of responses to a Usenet message, each one making a trivial change from the previous message. Cf. DoS attack.

Cow orker, n., a misspelling of coworker, usually deliberate. The intent is to humorously intimate that there is some illicit activity known as orking cows. (alt.sca, 8 Aug 1989)

Cross post, n. & v., a post that is sent to more than one newsgroup at the same time. While judicious use of cross posting can sometimes enhance a discussion by bringing in different perspectives, it is generally discouraged. Newsgroups tend to have their own internal conventions and practices and cross posting often results in conflicts and flames. Cross posting between obviously incompatible groups (e.g., alt.sex.bondage and soc.religion.christian.promisekeepers) is a form of trolling. (net.women & net.med, 24 Mar 1984)

DoS attack, n., is an abbreviation for Denial-of-Service attack. It is an attempt to shut down a newsgroup with large a number of spam or frivolous posts. The term is also used to denote an attack on a computer network aimed at overloading the network with large quantities of data. (alt.politics.org.covert, 13 Jun 1996)

Emoticon, n., a smiley (or other emotion) face drawn with ASCII characters, e.g., ;-). The term is from emot[ion] + icon. Emoticons are used in text-only communication to replicate tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language that would be present in face-to-face communication. Certain Usenet groups :-( upon use of emoticons. (comp.sys.amiga, 31 Jan 1987)

FAQ, abbrev., for Frequently Asked Question. Most Usenet groups have lists of FAQs and common topics of conversation so that newbies can have their questions answered without bothering the old hats. (comp.lang.c, 25 May 1989)

Flame, n. & v., is a deliberately insulting email or Usenet post. The term is from the “inflammatory” nature of the message. Its earliest appearance on Usenet is in fa.arms-d, 26 May 1981, but it is claimed to have been in existence in email usage from the 1960s.

Froup, n., is a jocular misspelling of group. Sometimes it is seen as newsfroup. (talk.bizarre, 24 Feb 1988)

Furrfu!, interj., is the exclamation sheesh! encrypted in Rot13. It is used as a general exclamation in Usenet. Furrfu first appears as an exclamation in the midst of unencrypted text in alt.folklore.urban, 18 Apr 1992, although there are instances of sheesh appearing in the midst of longer passages of Rot13 encrypted text as far back as 1986.

FWIW, abbrev., for For What It’s Worth. (net.unix, 27 Aug 1986)

Godwin’s Law, n., states that as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one. Many Usenet groups hold that once a comparison with Nazis has been made, further intelligent conversation on that thread is impossible. The law was formulated by Mike Godwin in 1990. The earliest reference in the Gooja archives is in rec.arts.books, 22 Aug 1991.

Gooja, n. & v., is the Google Groups archive of Usenet posts or to search those archives. The term is a combination of Goo[gle] + [De]ja, Deja News being an older archive that was bought by Google. (uk.games.video.dreamcast, 21 Feb 2001)

Great Renaming, The, n., the establishment of the current hierarchy of Usenet groups and the elimination of the old one. It occurred in 1986-87.

IANAL, abbrev., for I Am Not A Lawyer. The term is commonly used on Usenet as a disclaimer immediately prior to dispensing legal advice. (comp.virus, 18 Jan 1990)

IIRC, abbrev., for If I Recall Correctly. (rec.bicycles, 10 May 1990)

Killfile, n. & v., is a list of individuals or topics that will not be displayed by a newsreader. Individuals can tailor the killfiles in their newsreaders to suppress messages from particular individuals or that relate to particular topics. The term is also used as a verb meaning to place an individual or topic into one’s killfile. (news.software.b, 19 Aug 1987)

Lasnerian, adj., refers to vaguely defined period. Usenetters will often say such things as “1992 (Lasnerian)” or “1992 L.” to refer to dates that they are not certain of. The term is after Charles Lasner, who on 21 Aug 1993 posted a message to alt.folklore.urban where he contended that the period known as the “sixties” was not 1960-69, but rather started with the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 and ended with the American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973. Use of the term is heavily localized to alt.folklore.urban, but you will occasionally see it cropping up in other groups.

Line noise, n., is the presence of spurious characters in a Usenet post created by electrical noise in the network connections. People in groups that frown upon use of emoticons often refer to them as line noise. (fa.info-cpm, 1 Jun 1981)

Lurker, n., is a person who reads a Usenet group without posting to it. (net.movies.sw, 13 May 1984).

MOTSS, abbrev., for Member Of The Same Sex. The abbreviation was taken from a 1970 US Census term and used in Usenet newsgroups back when many system administrators refused to carry gay-themed newsgroups. The group net.motss was proposed in Sep 1983 to avoid using gay in the name of the group. (net.singles, 7 Jan 1983)

Netiquette, n., is the system of rules of social engagement on the Internet, etiquette for the net. (net.jokes, 15 Nov 1982)

Newbie, n., is a newcomer to a newsgroup. The term is originally from Vietnam-era US military slang, but nowadays is almost exclusively used in Internet contexts. (comp.sys.mac, 31 May 1988)

NNTP, abbrev., for Network News Transfer Protocol, a system created in 1984 that allowed Usenet to be transferred over TCP/IP connections. This freed the system from UUCP and allowed the Internet to carry Usenet.

Ob-, comb. form, stands for obligatory. The prefix is usually combined with the name of the newsgroup and used in off-topic posts. Text following the Ob-[newsgroup] is then some non-sequitur but on-topic comment. It can also be combined with other words to note an obligatory comment, e.g., ob-joke, ob-disclaimer. (comp.sys.ibm.pc, 4 Feb 1988)

Off-topic, adj., designates a posting that is outside the bounds of discussion for that particular group. Netiquette dictates starting the subject line with OT: when making an off-topic post so that those not interested can easily ignore it. (net.followup, 17 Nov 1982)

Old hat, n., is the opposite of a newbie, someone who has been a participant in a newsgroup for a long time. It is a jocular variant on the adjective old hat meaning tired or out of date. (net.astro, 15 Nov 1985)

OTOH, abbrev., for On The Other Hand. (net.nlang, 12 Aug 1983)

Plonk, interj., is an echoic term for the imaginary sound of someone being dropped into a killfile. Tradition dictates that when you killfile someone, you reply to their message with Plonk! to let them know they have been killfiled. (alt.flame, 11 Nov 1989)

Rot13, n. & v., is a simple cipher system where a letter is replaced by the letter 13 places away from it, A becomes N, B become O, etc. For example, “Qnegu Inqre vf Yhxr’f sngure” is “Darth Vader is Luke’s father.” Rot13 is used on Usenet to encode offensive jokes, pornographic passages, spoilers to movies and TV shows, or anything that someone might not want to stumble upon inadvertently. Most newsreaders include a Rot13 encode/decode feature. (net.jokes, 4 Dec 1982)

ROTFL, abbrev., for Rolling On The Floor Laughing. It is used to respond to jokes and humorous comments that one finds very funny. Also seen is ROTFLMAO, which adds My Ass Off to the phrase. (rec.humor, 29 Oct 1990)

September That Never Ended, The, catch phr., is September 1993. There was a time when the Internet and Usenet were the exclusive provinces of government and educational institutions. There was no public access to Usenet; you had to be affiliated with an institution to gain access. Old time Usenetters always dreaded Septembers. That was the month when thousands of new college freshmen would gain access to Usenet for the first time. The influx of newbies in September was almost overwhelming. In 1993, however, the general public could gain access to Usenet for the first time through Internet Service Providers. After September 1993, there was a constant stream of newbies on Usenet and that month came to be known as the September that never ended. (alt.folklore.computers, 26 Jan 1994)

Sig block, n., meaning signature block. It is also often sig file. Many Usenetters have standard blocks of text that are added to the end of their posts. These signature blocks often contain quotes, poems, bits of ASCII art, etc. (net.news, 16 Aug 1983)

Signal to noise ratio, n., the amount of intelligent, original commentary in a newsgroup, compared to spam, pointless chatter, etc. It is often abbreviated to S/N ratio. It is an adaptation of an electronics term. (net.suicide, 19 Feb 1983)

Sock puppet, n., is one who mindlessly parrots the ideas of another, as if one were a sock puppet. On Usenet, people sometimes create avatars to make it seem as if more people are agreeing with them. These are also known as sock-puppets. (chi.media, 15 May 1995)

Spoiler space, n., are blank lines inserted at the top of posts that contain spoilers, forcing someone to scroll down in order to read the spoilers. The intent is to prevent inadvertent viewing of spoilers. (rec.games.misc, 11 Apr 1992)

Spoiler, n., is information that gives away the end of a movie, TV show, book, video game, etc. and spoils it for anyone else. On Usenet, it is considered polite to clearly mark posts that contain spoilers. (fa.sf-lovers, 13 May 1981)

Thread drift, n., is the gradual changing of the subject matter in a thread. Long-lasting threads on Usenet almost invariably change topics multiple times. (rec.games.frp, 13 Jan 1991)

Troll, n. & v., a deliberately inflammatory message designed to rile up and provoke members of newsgroup. The term is from the method of fishing. (alt.folklore.urban, 7 Feb 1993)

YMMV, abbrev., for Your Mileage May Vary. It is used to mean that the results one gets may not match the results reported in the post. The term is from a standard disclaimer that automobile manufacturers give. (rec.music.classical, 27 Feb 1990)

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