A Different Sort of Online Chat
Posted by Richard Conniff on February 11, 2011
I’m always interested in the biological basis of our behaviors, even for instance, when we are online. So browsing around this morning, I came across this colorful history of the word “chat” in World War I, from Bookrags:
Throughout the war, soldiers fought, ate, slept, washed, and relieved themselves in narrow trenches surrounded by dead, decomposing bodies and hungry diseased rats. To make matters worse, the body louse, also known as the “chat,” was rampant. Since lighting fires on the front lines was prohibited because they would attract sniper fire, soldiers often had to huddle in close groups in cold weather, thus enabling infestation. Besides being a vector for diseases like typhus fever, which killed millions of German and Russian troops on the Eastern Front, the body louse can spread very quickly, producing up to twelve eggs per day. When conditions allowed, soldiers made social events of picking off these lice from clothing hair, and skin; these events were often called “chats” or “chatting up.”
I wish I could say that our gchats are actually just a vicarious form of social delousing. But with regret, here’s a broader account of the origins of chat from the etymology site Podictionary:
The Oxford English Dictionary explains the old meanings include “to utter familiarly; to talk in a gossiping way” and “to talk in a light and informal manner.”
Much of the live chat that goes on is certainly light and informal.
The word chat first appeared in English in the early 1400s as an abbreviation for chatter.
Chatter had, and still has, what the OED calls a more “depreciative” meaning than we assign to chat.
You can have a good chat with a friend but it’s those other people who are chattering about nothing in particular.
Chatter appeared in English back in the early 1200s and is said to be onomatopoeic.
As if anticipating Twitter 800 years ago the first meaning we have in the OED for chatter relates to birds uttering a rapid string of chirps.
It’s the rapid succession of sound that makes for chattering.
People not only chatter when talking in groups about juicy gossip but their teeth chatter when they are cold; making a quick series of clicks.
This teeth chattering appeared in the 1400s but it is why I said that participating in online chat is etymologically accurate. Typing as you live chat does make an ongoing quick series of clicks as you hammer away at the keyboard.
It was March 1985 that the OED points to as the emergence of the new meaning of chat. From the magazine Today’s Computers
“Chat, a mode [of computers connected as a Local Area Network] in which two or more users may type messages on each other’s terminals, enabling back-and-forth conversations through the network without waiting for electronic mail to be sent and received.”