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verb [intransitive/transitive]

to move your finger across the touch screen of a tablet or smartphone in order to move to a new page, make a choice, etc

'Swipe across the Hello screen to begin the setup process.'

Cult of Mac 31st March 2016

'During the transaction, an image of the card will appear on the screen of the device with a Visa Checkout button. The customer needs to swipe the image and feed the password or the pin code in the button to authenticate the transaction.'

International Business Times 13th March 2016

We digital immigrants occupy that unique and sometimes rather odd vacuum between two worlds – remembering life before the internet all too well, but being young enough to embrace the digital revolution and all its related trappings. This means that we're generally comfortable with the online universe and hand-held electronics, but still might find it a tiny bit weird that like is now a countable noun, or have an inner chortle at virtual reference to trolls because we can't help visualizing that ugly little storybook character popping out of a cave.

if you swipe left or right, though you're simply moving data in a particular direction across the screen, you might also be doing something far more significant in terms of life choices

I'm alluding here of course to the reincarnation of words for the electronic universe, one of the latest examples of which is the verb swipe. Ask me to describe what this verb means, and I'd more than likely imagine an arm clumsily swinging at something, or perhaps an object mysteriously disappearing (e.g. Who swiped my pen?) or maybe even a plastic card reader, at a push. Ask anyone under twenty however, and they'd instinctively think about their finger moving across the touch screen of a mobile phone or tablet computer.

This newer sense of swipe can be used either with an object, conventionally the screen itself or something it displays, or intransitively, often with an adverbial phrase saying more about the direction your finger moves, so you can swipe up/down/across, etc. What's more, if you swipe left or right, though you're simply moving data in a particular direction across the screen, you might also be doing something far more significant in terms of life choices. In online dating apps like Tinder, swiping left means that you've rejected a potential partner, whereas swiping right means that you've given them the thumbs up. This usage has thrived to such an extent that it's even spawned compound verbs left-swipe and right-swipe (with countable noun homographs) to correspondingly refer to actions of rejection or selection, or related passive forms be/get left-swiped/right-swiped if you're the object of someone's potential affections. In fact the concept of swiping left or right is now so widely acknowledged that it's beginning to break away from its dating app origins, sometimes also used as a generic reference to simply accepting or rejecting a choice on screen.

In early 2016, swipe right/left was a nominee in the 'Most Euphemistic' category of the American Dialect Society's now famous Word of the Year vote, eventually losing out to the phrase Netflix and chill – an invitation to 'relax and watch TV' now popularly recognized as a cover for something rather more intimate.

Background – swipe

Swipe in the sense of passing a finger across a touch screen has only been around for the last five years or so, there being no real evidence of it prior to Apple's launch of the iPad in 2010. The word itself dates back to the early 1800s however, first used in the sense of a swinging blow, with the stealing/pilfering sense not appearing until several decades later. The card-reader sense dates back to the 1990s.

The process of established words taking on new uses is of course a classic pattern of word formation, though one which seems to be proving particularly popular in the digital era. Of course it all started in the 90s with e.g. web, window, surf and browse, but newer examples include migrate to mean 'use a new computer system', share to mean 'communicate via social media', post to mean 'put information on the internet', tweet and follow in their Twitter senses of sending and subscribing to short messages, friend as a transitive verb meaning 'add someone to your friends list in social networking', and in the past year, ghost as a transitive verb to mean 'end a relationship by cutting off all online communication'.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 8th June 2016.

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