My book Netymology: A Linguistic Celebration of the Digital World is about the stories behind new words. I’ve been an etymology addict since I was a teenager, and especially love unpicking technological words.
It’s a great reminder of how messily human the stories behind even our sleekest creations are – not to mention delightful curiosities in their own right.
This word for our digital incarnations has a marvellously mystical origin, beginning with the Sanskrit term avatara, describing the descent of a god from the heavens into earthly form. Arriving in English in the late 18th century, via Hindi, the term largely preserved its mystical meaning until Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash first popularised it in a technological sense.
Fusing notions of virtual world-building and incarnation, it’s the perfect emblem of computers as a portal to a new species of experience.
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