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Down the rabbit hole: How crypto impacts the English language

Down the rabbit hole: How crypto impacts the English language
People & Culture
Collins Dictionary chose NFT as its word of the year in 2021, but that's not the only piece of crypto lingo to make it into popular vernacular. Credit: Photo by Ben Rosser/
  • Crypto words are making their way into popular vernacular.
  • NFT was even named word of the year by Collins Dictionary.
  • It is a fair bet that expressions such as proof of work, proof of stake, halving, and abbreviations like HODL will eventually join it.

Robert Holloway is a columnist and ombudsman at DL News. Views expressed are his own.

In the 15 years since the world first heard of Bitcoin, crypto has begun to stamp its mark on the language.

It has invented expressions such as stablecoin and non-fungible token which are now listed in the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Collins Dictionary chose NFT as its word of the year in 2021. The abbreviation FUD — fear, uncertainty and doubt — appears in American dictionary Merriam-Webster, after gaining ground in computer hardware circles as early as the 1970s.

Crypto has adopted existing words for its own purposes. They include crypto itself, as well as chain, rug, exploit, protocol, and custodian.

The online OED has updated its entries to include new definitions for some of them.

It is a fair bet that expressions such as proof of work, proof of stake, halving, and abbreviations like HODL will eventually join them.

Crypto pushes other expressions into the limelight. One example is hopium, which can be defined as unfounded hope, or blind optimism.

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A crypto investor affected by it has false or unwarranted faith in their holdings.

Hopium is an invented word, a combination of hope and opium. Such hybrids are sometimes called portmanteau words.

Imported from French, portmanteau appeared in English as early as 1553, according to the OED.

The first writer to pen the term portmanteau word was, however, Lewis Carroll, author of “Alice in Wonderland,” published in 1865.

He also made literary use of an expression which has become popular among crypto enthusiasts: going down the rabbit hole.

Alice’s adventures begin when she spots an agitated white rabbit, dressed in a waistcoat and carrying a pocket watch. She follows him underground.

Go down a linguistic rabbit hole and you never know where it will lead.

Later, in “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” she meets Humpty Dumpty, a huge pedantic egg who tries to explain how to decipher “The Jabberwocky,” the finest nonsense poem in English.

The first line of The Jabberwocky contains the word slithy. “It means ‘lithe and slimy,’” Humpty Dumpty says. “You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

A portmanteau was originally a large bag consisting of two pouches, used for carrying clothes or other equipment when travelling, and typically slung over the back of a horse.

It comes from the French verb porter, meaning to carry, and manteau, an overcoat. It has become rare in English since people stopped travelling on horseback. In modern French it means a stand on which to hang a coat.

Other portmanteau words include advertorial, bromance, hazmat, and webinar. All of these are listed in the OED.

Hopium Pepe the frog meme

Hopium is not in the OED, but several contributors to the online Urban Dictionary refer to it as a fictional narcotic.

A powerful, addictive drug, opium can dull a user’s critical faculties by producing states of euphoria or lassitude or by sending them into a dreamlike trance.

Karl Marx had that in mind when he described religion as “the opium of the people”. Genuine happiness could be achieved, he added, only by destroying the illusory happiness of religion.

The expression hopium predates crypto and was used by reporters during the US presidential campaign in 2008, when Barack Obama was first elected.

One of his campaign posters showed Obama’s face above the word HOPE in bold capital letters.

Columnist John Kass wrote in The Chicago Tribune that “many reporters are hopeless Obama hopium addicts.”

Three years later, Carolyn Baker, author of “The Coming Chaos”, reported seeing the words “the hopium is wearing off” on what she described as a “radical leftist website.”

The crypto community has adopted the expression, however. The website, which tracks internet phenomena, notes:

“The term has been used among stock market investors to describe market investors who hold on to failing investments out of false hope, and more recently by Bitcoin investors in a similar way.”

An accompanying illustration shows a meme of Pepe the Frog hooked to an oxygen tank marked ‘hopium’.

Hopium has spawned another neologism, copium. An Urban Dictionary contributor defines this as “lying to yourself to cope with something”.

It gives the example of supporters of a defeated political candidate who claim that the election was lost because of foreign interference or fraud: “they’re clearly high on copium.”

Given the negative connotations of hopium, it is surprising that anyone would choose to launch a company under that name.

But that is exactly what a French startup did. Founded in 2019 and registered on the Paris stock exchange the following year, Hopium was launched to manufacture hydrogen-fueled cars.

A prototype, the Hopium Machina, caused a stir at the 2022 Mondial de l’Auto, the world automobile show in Paris, but the firm lacked funds to develop it commercially.

After running up losses of €24.7 million in the first half of 2023, the company went into receivership. Its share price collapsed from €15.86 in November 2022 to €0.13 this month.

It was not the only company with green ambitions to find itself in difficulty.

Commenting on the state of the economy in his native Australia, Michael Barnard wrote in on May 12 this year: “back in 2021, Australia launched a study about getting its economy to net zero by 2050, which is a laudable goal.

Along the way, it appears to have been hijacked by people huffing hydrogen hopium.”

Anyone who would like to discover the delights to be found in linguistic rabbit holes should read “The Annotated Alice,” with notes by the late Martin Gardner, an American popular science and mathematics writer.

The book contains the keys to most of the numerous intellectual puzzles in Carroll’s masterpiece.

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