Your Keyboard Is Changing What Words Mean, Study Says

computer keyboard word meaningsComputers are shaping our minds in plentiful ways. By various reports, long stretches of screen time are making us less empathetic, more empathetic, less connected, more connected, less productive, more productive, dumber, and smarter. But it's also changing the meanings of words, according to a new study.

The standard QWERTY keyboard, named for the first six letters on the top row, has more keys on the left than the right. If you've been trained in proper typing protocol -- and don't punch everything in with your index fingers -- your right hand is in charge of 11 letters, while your left hand is in charge of 15.

That means typing on the left is a little less fluent, because you're more likely to hit a wrong key. Some words are just trickier to type than others. We don't like that, and so project that feeling onto the words, according to Daniel Casasanto, a psychologist at The New School for Social Research, and Kyle Jasmin, a Ph.D./M.D. student at University College London.

For their first test, Casasanto and Jasmin looked at a 1999 catalogue of over 1,000 words, which had been rated on a nine-point scale (from smiley face to frowny face). They also analyzed the Spanish edition, and made a Dutch one just for their experiment, because they were in the Netherlands, and recruited 132 Dutch native speakers to judge 159 words.

In all three languages, they found, words with more letters on the right side were, on average, rated significantly more positively, no matter whether participants were right-handed or left-handed. Specifically, one extra letter on the right added 4 percent extra positivity. They dubbed this relationship "the QWERTY effect," and published their finding in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

"It's better to be a pilot than a stewardess," Casasanto told AOL Jobs. "And better to be a killer than a murderer," we added.

If the QWERTY effect is true, the researchers suspected that newer words coined after the advent of the QWERTY keyboard, might demonstrate the effect. The meanings of these words are more malleable when "you're not fighting a history of established use," says Casasanto. Since these words aren't said aloud too often, it would also make sense if they succumbed to finger-based biases. And if the meanings they conveyed matched the moods they provoked, they were probably more likely to stick in the lexicon.

Abbreviations such as LOL, JK and OMG, for example, would be positively rated to an even higher degree, while WTF and BRB would be even more negative. And that's exactly what the researchers found.

It's possible, however, that we favor words that have more of their letters on the right side of the keyboard. The left side has a long history of bad vibes. "Sinistra" in Latin means left, as well as evil and unlucky. A few centuries ago, some believed that the left-handed had been baptized by the Devil. So Casasanto and Jasmin decided to see if the effect held for 1,600 words that they completely made up.

They recruited 800 English speakers to each rate 20 of them. Once again, the more right-sided the word, the more positively it was rated. So words that didn't even exist, and that people had never typed, were still processed through a QWERTY-ized brain.

This is a strange power for a keyboard that really has no logic for the modern typist. The QWERTY layout was designed in the 1870s, because when people typed speedily on an alphabetical keyboard, the keys would often jam. QWERTY was actually intended to slow down typing, with all the letters spelling out "t-y-p-e-w-r-i-t-e-r" put in the top row.

The QWERTY effect is "scary to mind scientists," Casasanto says, because it flies in the face of long-held ideas. "The assumption for a long time has been that there's no relationship between the form of the word and the meaning, and linguistics has based a lot of faith in this idea, and built theories on it."

But if Casasanto and Jasmin are right, a word's form -- on the keyboard, specifically -- is "shaping the meanings of words as people filter language through their fingers," the researchers write. Marketers might want to consider that when they're creating a brand name, and so might poets, novelists and other wordsmiths when they're constructing phrases for a particular effect.

Maybe one day we'll even have a new figure of speech to join alliteration, assonance, sibilance, and onomatopoeia. It could be called "typ-ish," Jasmin suggested via email, or "manuonomatopoeia," from the Latin-word for "hand." Or maybe, simply "QWERTY-ish."

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