Lexicon Valley

The Thing About Ping

During World War II, ping was a menace—a word associated with submarine sonar and torpedoes. 

Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

One paradox of the smart-tech age is that our devices are, when you think about them, kind of scary, and yet they make cute noises. They beep and chime and gurgle and hiccup, as if guided by some focus group’s conclusion that nothing makes us smile quite like a toy piano whose tummy is rumbling. This means, for one, that certain adorable sounds have accrued an aura of dread, like dolls in a horror movie. (Chime! It’s your boss. Beep! Time for your colonoscopy!) It also gets at something true about human interaction in general: Because contact can be so scary, we often find ways to wrap it in self-deprecation, courtesy, and cuteness. We’ve been doing it forever (“Why don’t I just give you a buzz and we can chat about your performance review?”), but the word ping encapsulates the dynamic particularly well.

Ping—ubiquitous but modest, a friendly verb with a stressful, insistent undertone—echoes with contradictions. It belongs to business jargon, but it’s playfully onomatopoetic, which implies a kind of babbling pleasure in noise for its own sake. The word makes you think of ping-pong and (perhaps) Mulan’s male disguise in the Disney movie. But it also has serious applications: It cropped up in discussions of the cell tower records on Serial and in coverage of 2014’s missing planes, with their lost black boxes. And of course it’s serious: Its origins lie in war.

According to the OEDping was first used onomatopoetically, to represent “a short, resonant, high-pitched (usually metallic) sound,” such as “the firing of a bullet” or “the ringing of a small bell.” Almost instantly the word was divided between violence and recreation: While two magazines in the 1830s deployed ping in reference to rifle shots, Rudyard Kipling, in his 1910 children’s book Rewards and Fairies, described the quaint and charming “ping-ping-ping” of a “bicycle bell … around the corner.” Other things that have pinged in printed English include mosquitos (which fly at a turn-of-the-century travel writer “with a wild ping of joy”), a fluorescent light bulb snapping on (1953), a Russian satellite (1957), and grain falling into a bucket (1994). If the word absorbed any dangerous sharpness from the medieval pinge, meaning “to prick, stab, or poke,” it parceled it out only some of the time.

Now for a sidecar on ping-pong, as in table tennis. The onomatope seems to have originated, along with the sport, in England: Though Parker Brothers trademarked the term in 1900, it was sighted as early as 1823. (The game was also known as whiff-whaff.) When ping-pong was exported to Asia in 1926, fans concocted two new characters in Mandarin Chinese to express ping pang, a transliteration of the English ping-pong. So though you may be tempted to denounce ping-pong as a crude Orientalist jab designed to mock the tones of Mandarin speech, it in fact represents the way Victorian Englishmen thought a ball sounded striking paddle and table. One less thing to be outraged about, hooray!

Back to your scheduled programming: During World War II, ping found its sea legs, debuting as the technical term for the sonar signal one ship emits to measure its distance from another waterborne body. A sonar operator became a ping or ping jockey. As a piece of naval cant, the word felt decidedly menacing—historian Sherry Sontag wrote of “subs shooting torpedoes … men trapped sweating within cramped steel cylinders as Japanese sonar pings rang through their hulls and depth charges fell around them.” (When the Allies retaliated, it was pingtime for Hitler.) Peace, however, brought another transformation: In the 1980s, early Internet users adopted ping to describe the process by which one computer queries a second computer (often a network server) to find out if it is online. That query, or “echo request,” became known as a “ping”; the answer, or “echo reply,” was a “pong.” Once harbingers of violence, the sounds became brief establishments of contact, even poignant flares in the dark. I’m here, they said. Are you?

By the early-aughts the technical meaning of ping had expanded to allow for human pingers and pingees. In a 2000 newsletter from the American Dialect Society, one member observed that “a computer science person I work with” sometimes said ping to mean “get in touch with or send a reminder to a person.” Urban Dictionary definitions for “ping me” go back to 2004, and include glosses like “call me,” “get my attention,” and “send a brief (electronic) signal.” Now, in 2015, anecdata suggests that ping me or I’ll ping him has dethroned contact me or I’ll reach out to him as trendy workplace signifiers. One of my colleagues (who calls herself a “major offender”) points out how the verb is slyly noncommittal about modes of communication. You can ping someone by text, email, chat, phone call, cubicle drop-in, carrier pigeon, or telepathy. The content of the message proves just as vague—unlike I’ll ask her, I’ll ping her could mean I’ll tell her your dumb request, and then we’ll laugh about it or I’ll sincerely ask her or, possibly, we’ll Facebook message about ChapStick.

But ping is more than a catchall evasion in a world of interconnected businesspeople. It’s cute. Nice. An aural emoji. As unassuming and low pressure as a shrug. It’s the casual Friday of office diction, conjuring up a workplace where everyone basically gets along.

“I like it,” a different co-worker told me. “I think it’s another way to say ‘nudge.’ ” She added that “there are a lot of terms that people use nowadays to seem more neighborly online because, well, so many of us work with people who don’t actually sit next to us.” Over Gchat, a friend characterized the word as “collegial, menschy.” “I don’t necessarily use ping with people I actually like,” she said, “but I use it around people who I want to THINK I like them.”

Maybe ping’s friendliness has to do not only with the diminutiveness of the sound it mimics, but with the self-deprecation of using a word that assumes you are inflicting a little bit of unpleasantness—“to prick, stab, or poke,” remember?—on a person by reaching out. Ping apologizes for itself automatically. It regrets the bother, but just wants to check in. In turn, I think this relates to why the term hasn’t quite made it into personal conversations. (When it does appear, as in a big scheduling text—Can someone ping Cheryl when she gets home—it sounds businesslike and unnatural.) We don’t need to explain to our friends, when we get in touch, that we care for them, which is why we want to grab drinks. But in a professional setting, we may wish to reassure a contact that we like him, though that is not the reason we’re sending him mail. In fact, we like him enough to feel vaguely apologetic for interrupting his day! (But also, we are on deadline, so if he could get back to us as soon as possible, that would be great.)

Ping seems graciously open-ended. On one hand, it asks for the lowest possible level of commitment. On the other, it implies endless accessibility (“Ping me if you have any questions at all”). Its world is one of niceness and low stakes—unless you are a submarine. Maybe the truest thing you can say about ping is that it establishes contact; that, in its lack of specificity, it captures the ambiguity of human interactions, from martial to transactional to playful to tentative to whimsical to pushy to friendly. I’m here, it pulses. Are you?