Grammar nerds everywhere had tiny strokes when the mysterious cloaked figures behind the AP Stylebook announced that as of this June, the word “Internet” will officially be spelled “internet.” If you don’t see a difference, congratulations, you’re not a neurotic journalist … but there is a difference!
Since the dawn of the Internet, the word has always been capitalized. Not everyone does this, but if you’re going by the official rules of writing stuff in English — that’s the way it goes. It’s been weirdly controversial for years, since most journalists have nothing better to do than argue about minor spelling conventions. AP has ended the fight, but this is only the beginning of the a lifetime of agony for people who refuse to give up the old way.
So, why was it capitalized in the first place, and why does it matter? The main reason is because “Internet” is actually a proper noun. To keep it simple, The Internet that we know is an internet, or a network of computers connected to each other for the purpose of sending data packets back and forth. Confused yet? It’s essentially like the difference between a tissue and a Kleenex. One’s a generic type, one is a specific brand name. Internets in the broader sense have been around for a while, the most important one being ARPANET, developed in the 1960s by the Department of Defense. This was the first interconnected computer network that utilized packet switching, which is still the preferred method of efficiently transmitting small pieces of data. ARPANET was the foundation for our modern Internet.
That old joke about Al Gore claiming to have invented the Internet does actually have a grain of truth. Over-inflated ego aside, Gore created a bill in 1991, decades after the creation of ARPANET, that paved the way for the invention of the World Wide Web, which amazingly is also not the same thing as the Internet. Even though we tend to use terms like “the web” interchangeably with “the net” or “the interwebz,” depending on if you are stuck inside a late 1990s TV show, but it’s not all the same. The World Wide Web is what you’re looking at right now. The web lives on the Internet. You use the Internet to access the web and look at websites. The web is what makes the Internet so useful for most people, but it didn’t exist until the early ’90s.
For most people, this doesn’t matter. The general public doesn’t know or care what the difference is between the Internet and the Web, which is why it doesn’t matter that AP plans to strip these words of their proper noun format. A lot of people will whine about it for the next few weeks and complain that the English language is on the decline and words have lost their meaning and we might as well be living in caves smearing poop on the walls if we can’t bother to properly capitalize our words because that’s all that separates us from the animals. Those people also just had heart attacks at the length of that last sentence, but languages are fluid and designed to be played with and adapted to our modern needs.
It is, however, always a good idea to know the history and meaning of the words we use every day. Now you know some fun new facts, so go impress your friends with your new technological prowess. See if you can casually drop “packet switching” into a conversation today.