Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 12 July 2008

Dot Wordsworth on the word 'sticky'.<br type="_moz" />

Dot Wordsworth on the word ‘sticky’.

Longfellow, in the middle of writing ‘Hiawatha’, complained to his diary one hot day of ‘Chamber-maids chattering about — children crying — and everything sticky except postage stamps, which having stuck all together like a swarm of bees, refuse further duty.’ It’s funny how Longfellow wrote better informally than when he tried. Anyway, stickiness has, my daughter tells me, become a virtue in business circles. It is a desirable quality for websites, from which so many strive to squeeze money. Stickiness glues users to your site and makes them return to it, like flies to syrup.

‘Determining the sticky quotient of your website requires server log analysis,’ says some site not unconnected with server-log analysts. ‘These stats can tell you how long each visitor stayed at your site, how often they return and what drew their attention.’

I’m not sure how we managed before the word sticky came into use. In the 16th century they had to make do with words such as glutinous or gluish (a word used in the 14th century for the pitch on the infant Moses’ little ark of bulrushes). The word sticky was used first to mean ‘like a stick’. Only in the 18th century did it find employment in the adhesive sense.

The word stickiness has recently been recruited for scientific use, describing forces that keep atoms together, as if this metaphor explained anything. There is even a tiny particle called a gluon, postulated in 1971 and defined by a series of terms probably unknown to us innocent bystanders: ‘Any of a group of massless bosons possessing colour that are postulated as carriers of the colour force that binds quarks together in a hadron.

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