To B or little b: That is the bitcoin question
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but drop a hyphen from “onchain” and all of a sudden it’s WWIII
Midjourney modified by Blockworks
My first journalism job was so long ago that we were required to capitalize Blockchain.
Does looking at Blockchain (look, I did it again) capitalized in the middle of a sentence like that make you uncomfortable?
It makes me uncomfortable.
Thankfully, we’ve since moved on as a society. We now recognize blockchain as just another technology, so it has naturally lost its need for that capital “B”.
Bitcoin, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to carry the same simplicity.
You’ll see both Bitcoin and bitcoin in the wild, seemingly changing form as one hops among the various media.
You’ll hear that “bitcoin” is a currency, so it is left uncapitalized, like dollars, yen, euros, krona. But “Bitcoin” is the formal name of the network — thus, it needs that proper noun capitalization.
Oh, wait! “Bitcoin” is both a network and a currency, so it must always be capitalized. But then “bitcoin” needs to match “blockchain,” so it definitely must never be capitalized. Yet “bitcoins” isn’t a word, since “yens” isn’t a word, so “bitcoin” can also be plural.
On the other hand, “bitcoins” has to be a word, because “dollars” is a word, so “bitcoin” can’t really be plural.
This type of semantic dispute may only be interesting to grammar freaks and die-hard crypto enthusiasts, but the confusion — and frustration in both camps — speaks to the industry’s broader language dilemma.
To put it bluntly, crypto has a really hard time being understood, and it’s entirely its own fault.
To on-chain or not to onchain
Crypto Twitter, per usual, hosted the latest crypto language debate this week.
A small group of enthusiasts (read: tiny, fewer than 100 followers) is attempting to raise enough money to buy a billboard next to Mirriam Webster’s headquarters that reads “onchain is a new word.”
Crypto Twitter pedants went, well, a little nuts in response.
Not over whether minting NFTs of a simulated “onchain” dictionary definition is a waste of money, but whether one should write “onchain” rather than “on-chain” in a pitch to America’s oldest dictionary publisher.
Blockworks wasn’t immune to the irresistible allure of this burning question. When I attempted to ask colleagues about their thoughts regarding on-chain vs onchain, the resulting opinions were so cacophonous I couldn’t finish my sentence.
Everyone seems to be sweating the little stuff rather than addressing the bigger issue: No one knows what the hell we’re talking about most of the time.
Because crypto naming conventions are even sillier than Baby Gronk, the new Drip King, getting rizzed up by Livvy.
For example, it’s baffling that crypto spends any time arguing about such matters when the names of some of the industry’s most public-facing companies are just as confusing.
To list a few: Consensus, ConsenSys, BlockFi, Blockfolio, The Block, Blockworks (sorry), Cointelegraph, CoinDesk, Coinbase, Coingecko, CoinMarketCap…you get the picture.
We weren’t so smart about names in the beginning, and it’s starting to catch up to us. With each new crypto innovation — Ordinals, Ethscriptions, staking, stacking, yield farming — we’re actually moving further away from developing a lexicon that anyone besides us can actually understand.
In this fast-moving tech environment, it’s crypto builders (rather than any linguists) who have the responsibility of naming new technologies. And they are failing.
Yes, there are few words and phrases that have successfully made it from the closed crypto inner sanctum to the mainstream. Last fall, Merriam Webster’s new words list included metaverse, altcoin and unbanked.
So it’s not too much of a longshot to imagine that onchain could actually make it in Merriam’s next new words round (especially considering how unbanked also has no hyphen).
We just have to ask ourselves — how much does all this really matter?
Even if we are somehow finally able to straighten things out and make some of these terms dictionary-official once and for all, we’re still left with one linguistic mess after another. Like, how can a rollup be optimistic? Does it always have to have a cheerful disposition, or can it feel a little blue sometimes?
Cryptocurrency, and the various new inventions it brings, exists through the creation of a new language. And with the exception of a handful of cool Easter Egg names like market maker Wintermute (named after the sentient AI in William Gibson’s sci-fi novel Neuromancer), crypto language is still in the stage of undecipherable inside baseball.
In fact, Merriam-Webster ironically doesn’t even have the “correct” definition for the very word “crypto” the way that the crypto industry uses it.
Flip to the “C” section and you’ll find this definition for crypto: “a person who adheres or belongs secretly to a party, sect, or other group.”
Honestly, sounds about right.
I don’t care much about tech, I don’t care a whole lot about finance, either. I care about writing stories and watching weird things unfold. And that’s why I’ve ended up in crypto.
But because I’m missing that passion for what crypto and blockchain are all about — finance, tech, privacy, yadda yadda — I’m going to write instead about what I am actually interested in. Everything about crypto that has very little to do with crypto.
That’s what this column will be about. All the tangential stories that come out of the blockchain and crypto space, what I think about them, and how I navigate it all as a skeptical former Russian literature major.
It’s precisely my perch as an outsider that lets me do what I do: Opine on all sides of any crypto issue, no strings attached, no skin in the game.
If you want to talk crypto with me, let’s go off topic.