The etymological network of “net”

Say the phrase the net today, and surely the first thing that springs to mind is the internet. It even sounds outdated, conjuring up fossil browsers like Netscape, as we mostly just refer to the technology as the internet or being online.

Net does survive in the expression net neutrality, the principle that internet service providers should treat all traffic the same—and rules about which the US Federal Communication Commissions (FCC) repealed last week to great objection. The term was coined by Tim Wu, a professor of media law at Cornell University, in 2003, when net was a more relevant term.

Incredible, though, isn’t it, how the net more immediately calls up email, Twitter, or cat videos than it does, you know, an actual net that catches fish or a soccer ball? How did we get here?

Nothing but net. (Pixabay)

Casting out the net…

Net is an old word in the language. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds hnett, among other forms, in Old English gospels. Consonants clusters beginning with h were very common in Old English. Ring began as hring, loaf started out hlaf, and nut was originally hnut before we lost those initial aspirations.

This Old English hnett was first and foremost the “open mesh of twine” kind. But the metaphorical suggestions of this technology—yes, let’s not forget that rope-makers were the original startups—were not lost on the Anglo-Saxons. We can also find net for “a moral or mental snare” and “a spider’s web” in Old English, as the OED wonderfully records.

Now, we might well think that net—as in “gross” or “final,” like in a company’s net profits—is another metaphorical extension. I, for one, have always loosely imagined this net as referring to all the stuff a net caught, as what remains, the net here acting like a kind of sieve.

But that’s not the case.

This net is actually related to neat. It comes from the Old French net, meaning “clean” or “pure.” English first borrowed it in the early 1300s, when it described someone as “trim” or “smart” in dress, broadening out to “elegant,” “good,” and “decent,” then “free from further deductions” in the early 1400s. The Old French net ultimately goes back to a Latin verb, nitere, “to shine,” which also eventually yielded neat. Lots of metaphor at work here.

…and dragging it back in

Fast forward to the 1960–70s, when the internet was being developed. We can find the net referring to interconnected computer networks as early as 1970. In 1971, we can find ARAPNET, parent to the internet as we now know and use it; the US Department of Defense created it as part of its Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA. And In 1972, we can see an early instance of internet as such. Here’s the New York Times on why we did—and now largely no longer—capitalize internet.

All the terms are a bit tricky to, um, disentangle, but here’s the basic idea. With the rise of railways, electricity, and other modern infrastructure the 19th century, both net and network (originally a “work of net” in the 1530s) starting referring to complex, interconnected systems. Network, especially, was extended to broadcasting in the 1910s and to computers as early as 1962. We can find the sense of a safety net by 1905 and of a social network by 1946. And an internetwork was used for a “networks of networks”—shortened to the internet in the early 1970s, as we saw.

That means, ultimately, the internet starts with net, adds on work, joins with inter, then ditches that work. For a time in the 1990–2000s, it lost the inter, too.

Internetwork itself (inter, “between, reciprocal”) wasn’t a novel coinage, though. The OED attests it 1894 as a translation of the German Zwischennetze (literally, “between nets”), used for an “interconnecting network” in a biological context; a 1935 citation shows internetwork used in an electrical one.

In more ways than one, internet is all about being connected—and that’s no etymological coincidence, too. If we cast out the etymology of net past Old English, we’ll find a Germanic root, then an Indo-European one. It’s hypothesized net is rooted in the Proto-Indo-European *ned-, “to bind” or “tie,” which produced nodus (“knot”) and nexus (“bond, obligation”) in Latin. The former gives us words more conspicuous derivatives like node and nodule, but also noose and denouement (via French, literally an “unknotting”). The later gives us nexus, yes, as well as annex and connect.

It’s like etymology is one big, oh, I don’t now, network or something.

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