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From book crossing to wikis

Barbara McClintock
(Language Update, Volume 6, Number 4, 2009, page 35)

Read a good book lately? Pass it on.

Book crossing, called livre voyageur, libérez un livre or passe-livre in French1, is the practice of leaving books in a public place to be picked up by others, who might not otherwise have access to the books, to encourage them to read. According to Wikipedia, the term is derived from bookcrossing.com, a free online book club that makes it possible to register books and trace their paths. The popularity of book crossing has grown, spawning blogs, forum discussions and annual conventions throughout the world.

Flashmobs and carrotmobs

You may have heard of flashmobs (TERMIUM Plus®: foule éclair or rassemblement éclair): large groups of people who communicate on the Internet to organize mostly silly events in public places. A flashmob paid homage to Michael Jackson by dancing to his music at Montréal’s Place des Arts in August this year. Harper’s Magazine editor Bill Wasik came up with the flashmob concept.2 Flashmobs are intended to be apolitical, unlike carrotmobs,3 a term coined last year by Californian environmentalist Brent Schulkin, who also founded a website, carrotmob.org.

Carrotmobbers4 shop at a small business in large numbers, or a mob, all on the same day. The organizers usually ask the business to invest a proportion of the day’s receipts in energy-efficient improvements. For example, a restaurant owner may install a greener heating system and switch to recyclable containers for takeout food and paper cups instead of expanded polystyrene coffee cups.

The idea is to use a carrot rather than a stick to encourage environmentally friendly behaviour. This form of social activism is sometimes referred to as green shopping or a buycott.5 Carrotmobbing (événement écoresponsable or rassemblement de consommateurs écoresponsables6) takes the flashmob concept one step further. Like a flashmob, people are mobilized on the Internet, but they use their consumer power to make socially beneficial choices.

The “in crowd”

Jeff Howe, contributing editor to Wired magazine, coined the term crowdsourcing in 2006, referring to a “new pool of cheap labour.”7 The idea is that ordinary people use their spare time to work with companies to create content, do research, etc., sometimes for free. This past summer, two British newspapers, The Guardian and The Telegraph, launched a new crowd-sourced experiment, “Investigate Your MP’s Expenses,” and asked the public for help in reading thousands of expense reports and related documents posted on their respective websites.8

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

The headlines are screaming “Bernard Madoff accused of Ponzi scheme.” Ponzi schemes are a type of illegal pyramid operation named for Charles Ponzi, an Italian-born swindler, who duped thousands into investing in a postage stamp speculation scheme in the U.S. in the 1920s.9 I suspect that the term Ponzi is used when there are only one or two main perpetrators. A pyramid scheme or opération pyramidale,10 on the other hand, is a bigger operation in which recruited investors must then recruit others in order to be paid, and the last members recruited are left holding the (empty) bag.

The highly respected Le Monde newspaper recently published an article that referred to a “Ponzi scheme” as a schéma de Ponzi.11 The term schéma de Ponzi has been criticized because schéma in French does not correspond to scheme in English—a deceitful plan or plot. Madoff’s scheme was to pay investors with money invested by new clients. It went undisclosed until the 2008 stock market crash, when too many of his clients tried to withdraw their funds. TERMIUM Plus® provides a synonym, Ponzi game, of which the French translation is combine à la Ponzi. Wikipedia uses chaîne de Ponzi in French.12

What’s up with wikis?

Wiki13 is a term generally used to describe a website that uses wiki software with interlinked pages that can be easily created and edited by visitors. For example, a translation business could support one or more wikis containing information to be shared by all the affiliated translators, such as style sheets for particular clients, specialized glossaries and lists of client preferences. For more information, see Tech Files by André Guyon in the September 2009 issue of Language Update.

Notes