Finding Technical Definitions

Overwhelmed with “geek speak”? Google can help you find the answers.

Specialized vocabularies remain, for the most part, fairly static—words don’t suddenly change their meaning all that often. Not so with technical and computer-related jargon. It seems like every 12 seconds someone comes up with a new buzzword or term relating to computers or the Internet, and then 12 minutes later it becomes obsolete or means something completely different—often more than one thing at a time. Maybe it’s not that bad. It just feels that way.

Google can help you in two ways; by helping you look up words and by helping you figure out what words you don’t know that you need to know.

Technology Terminology

You’ve just got out of the conference room and so many new words were slung at you your head is buzzing. The problem at this point is that you don’t know if you’ve been hearing slang, hardware/software specific terminology, or general terminology. How do you determine which is which?

As with any new vocabulary, you’re going to have to use contextual clues. In what part of the conversation was the term used? Was it used most often in relation to something? Did only one person use the term? It might just be slang [Hack #4]. Is it written down anywhere? Try to get all the information about it that you can. If there is no information about it available—your boss stuck her head in your cubicle and said, “We’re thinking of spending $20 million on a project using X. What do you think?”—treat it as general terminology.

Google Glossary

Before you start your search at Google, check and see if Google Labs [Hack #35] is still offering the Google Glossary ( Google Glossary provides definitions of terms both technical and nontechnical. If that didn’t turn up anything useful, move on to Google.

Researching Terminology with Google

First things first: for heaven’s sake, please don’t just plug the abbreviation into the query box! For example, searching for XSLT will net you 900,000 results. While combing through the sites Google turns up may eventually lead you to a definition, there’s simply more to life than that. Instead, add "stands +for" to the query if it’s an abbreviation or acronym. "XSLT stands +for" returns around 29 results, and the very first is a tutorial glossary. If you’re still getting too many results ("XML stands +for" gives you almost 1,000 results) try adding beginners or newbie to the query. "XML stands +for" beginners brings in 35 results, the first being “XML for beginners.”

If you’re still not getting the results you want, try "What is X ?" or " X +is short +for" or X beginners FAQ, where X is the acronym or term. These should be regarded as second-tier methods, because most sites don’t tend to use phrases like “What is X?” on their pages, “X is short for” is uncommon language usage, and X might be so new (or so obscure) that it doesn’t yet have an FAQ entry. Then again, your mileage may vary and it’s worth a shot; there’s a lot of terminology out there.

If you have hardware- or software-specific terminology—as opposed to hardware- or software-related—try the word or phrase along with anything you might know about its usage. For example, DynaLoader is software-specific terminology; it’s a Perl module. That much known, simply give the two words a spin:

DynaLoader Perl

If the results you’re finding are too advanced, assuming you already know what a DynaLoader is, start playing with the words beginners, newbie, and the like to bring you closer to information for beginners:

DynaLoader Perl Beginners

If you still can’t find the word in Google, there are a few possible causes: perhaps it’s slang specific to your area, your coworkers are playing with your mind, you heard it wrong (or there was a typo on the printout you got), or it’s very, very new.

Where to Go When It’s Not on Google

Despite your best efforts, you’re not finding good explanations of the terminology on Google. There are a few other sites that might have what you’re looking for.

Whatis (

A searchable subject index of computer terminology, from software to telecom. This is especially useful if you’re got a hardware- or software-specific word, because the definitions are divided up into categories. You can also browse alphabetically. Annotations are good and are often cross-indexed.

Webopedia (

Searchable by keyword or browseable by category. Also has a list of the newest entries on the front page so you can check for new words.

Netlingo (

This is more Internet-oriented. This site shows up with a frame on the left containing the words, with the definitions on the right. It includes lots of cross-referencing and really old slang.

Tech Encyclopedia (

Features definitions and information on over 20,000 words. Top 10 terms searched for are listed so you can see if everyone else is as confused as you are. Though entries had before-the-listing and after-the-listing lists of words, I saw only moderate cross-referencing.

Geek terminology proliferates almost as quickly as web pages. Don’t worry too much about deliberately keeping up—it’s just about impossible. Instead, use Google as a “ready reference” resource for definitions.

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