Here at CES 2016, we've seen a cornucopia of two-wheeled, self-balancing scooters. Of course, we have a name for those gadgets these days: hoverboards. Yes, we know, the actual device doesn't hover, but the rider looks as if they're floating as their rigid upright body soars across the floor. It makes sense, even if it's a silly co-opting of Back to the Future's levitating and physics-defying skateboard.
Some people are still not okay with this. Every time we at The Verge publish an article or promote a video containing the word hoverboard in any fashion, a torrent of angry feedback rises up, apparently in defense of something that doesn't actually exist outside room-temperature superconductor research or one-off maglev experiments. "Still not a hoverboard." "Why are they called hoverboards? It doesn't float on air lol." "It has wheels! It doesn't hover! It's a rollerboard!"
This is Hoverboard Neurosis, an obsessive and undying compulsion to point out that a hoverboard does not actually hover and therefore cannot be called a hoverboard.
Hoverboard Neurosis needs to end
Back in August, The Verge's Russell Brandom said if "it has wheels, it's not a hoverboard." He was correct then, and he's correct now. What's changed in the months since is the cultural understanding of these peculiar vehicles. After countless headlines and celebrity viral videos, we've lost the war on preserving the hoverboard name. When you say hoverboard in any non-film or non-science context, people generally know what you're talking about. So it's past time we give up the fight. The two-wheeled self-balancing scooter is called a hoverboard. It's called a hoverboard because that's what people call them.
"By the time we got into it, it [the hoverboard name] had so much inertia," Bob Hadley, Razor's research and development manager, told me this week at CES, where Razor was showing off its Hovertrax hoverboard. "I don't know if you can rebrand something that started organically." He's right, you can't.
Coming to peace with this fact may be hard, but it's necessary if we want to discuss the bizarre popularity of hoverboards and their potential staying power. Start first with the realization that there are lots of names for things that are inaccurate. These are called misnomers. Take, for instance, the hangnail, which is not actually a nail at all, but a piece of skin located at or near the root of a fingernail. But we call them hangnails because people know what you mean when you say that word. These are everywhere; a peanut is not actually a nut, and a firefly is not actually a fly.
Some people like to point out that it's the media perpetuating this infuriating hoverboard inaccuracy, that if we only stuck to our guns we could correct this grievous wrong. "The Verge should stand up for common sense and semantic integrity," said one commenter. "Actually — you guys are the one's adamantly insisting on calling them hoverboards. The public gets wind of them and starts calling them such," said another.
But calling something a two-wheeled self-balancing scooter is pedantic, and it will never reasonably fit in any headline. Calling a hoverboard a Segway is also inaccurate because Segway is a trademarked brand name. What about rollerboards, gyroboards, handleless scooters? All of these names pale in comparison to hoverboard, which is the most colloquially accurate way to inform readers about the subject matter of a story about the self-balancing scooter.
It's called a hoverboard because that's what people call them
We as journalists do our job mainly by communicating through words. Those words have meanings, even if those meanings are not scientifically accurate 100 percent of the time. Sometimes an inaccuracy or a euphemism can be dangerous. Words can distort, bury meanings, and cause real harm, like when governments use phrases like "enhanced interrogation" and "enemy combatant" in lieu of describing a more grim reality.
The hoverboard doesn't fall in the category of distortion. It's a harmless name until boards that actually hover off the ground become a viable and widespread consumer technology product. Language is always changing, and at a certain point you need to stop fighting and change with it.
So the next time we call something a hoverboard, you'll know we're talking about a two-wheeled self-balancing scooter. When we get around to talking about what to call an actual levitating skateboard, the mechanisms of pop culture and internet virality will push a name to the top. It may be a name you disagree with. Maybe we'll call them floatboards.
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