“Alt” as an Alternative to “Alternative”

By Mark Nichol

The prefix alt-, an abbreviation of alternate, has appeared in the media lately, attached to the word right to denote a political movement supporting nationalism and opposing multiculturalism and liberal immigration policies. Although this prominence is a very recent phenomenon, the term alt-right—or, at least, its full form, “alternative right”—is not brand new: Coined in 2008, it was adopted two years later as the name of a website devoted to content espousing alt-right principles. However, it’s unclear when the abbreviated version of the term was coined; it might date back mere days or weeks at most.

A dictionary entry offers this definition of alt: “Denoting a version of something, especially music, that is intended as a challenge to the traditional version.” (Alternative, in this sense meaning “not traditional or usual,” is an extension of alternate, which is ultimately derived from Latin alter, meaning “other.”)

The coinage follows a format employed for a handful of terms, of which alt-rock is the most prominent: In 1979, various sources began to refer to underground music inspired by the punk rock movement with the adjective alternative; as such music, ironically, became mainstream, it was labeled, among other things, “alternative rock,” and thence alt-rock. As this movement was increasingly commercially exploited, the term’s popularity declined.

However, the prefix has been affixed more recently to comedy that, like anything alt, is considered edgy or iconoclastic. Similarly, alt-fiction is the term given to novels and short stories that subvert and defy conventions of traditional fiction. There’s even alt-dating, the use of online dating websites that appeal to people outside mainstream society.

Such terms are perhaps inspired in part by the use of the prefix alt in Usenet, a computer-based discussion system established in 1980, to denote groups outside the system’s conventional discussion categories.

The abbreviation is also familiar to users of PC keyboards, which includes an Alt key used in combination with other keys to carry out a function distinct from that enabled by pressing the other key alone, but this term originates with alternate, not alternative.

It’s quite likely that in our jargon-happy culture, the prefix may begin to appear more often, modifying additional nouns as a shortcut for signifying unconventional behavior or thought. In tandem, however, as often occurs when jargon proliferates, expect such terms to be used derisively or ironically as well as sincerely.

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11 Responses to ““Alt” as an Alternative to “Alternative””

  • Dale A. Wood

    This is so true, Mr. Nichol, and thank you for observing this:
    “The abbreviation [Alt] is also familiar to users of PC keyboards, which includes an Alt key used in combination with other keys to carry out a function distinct from that enabled by pressing the other key alone, but this term originates with alternate, not alternative.”
    I dislike it when people come up with what they think is a “neat” or “cool” abbreviation or prefix for something, but that “set” of letters is already in use for something else. It shows me what narrow worlds lots of people live in.
    It is also true that “alt” is the German adjective of “old”. Long ago, when people first started taking surnames**, someone who told the name “Altman” or “Altmann” was either and old man or he had a peculiar face or white hair that made him look old.
    So, there are scores of words from German or Anglo-Saxon that have been adopted or adapted into English and they start with the prefix “Alt”: Altbruecke = Altbridge is an old bridge, “Altreich” = the old regime or the old government, and maybe that has morphed into “Aldridge” in English, or maybe that just comes from “old ridge”. “Altstadt”= the old town or the old city, and the most pleasant word is “Altwein” = “old wine”. It is interesting that in German, “Wein” means either “vine” or “wine”, depending on the context!
    **There were also times in medieval or renaissance when the Jewish people were forced to adopt surnames. Before that, then just used patronyms: e.g. if Isaac was the son of David, then he just used the name “Isaac Ben David”, and Isaac’s son Judah, became Judah Ben Isaac. When big dukedoms, principalities, kingdoms, and empires started
    being formed in Europe, it was hard for the (gentile) governments to keep track of everyone, so the rulers ordered everyone to have family surnames.

  • Dale A. Wood

    In the world of science fiction, fantasy stories, and horror tales, the words “alternative” or “alternate”, possibly abbreviated as “alt” refer to strange things and strange places, e.g. alternate universes, alternative worlds, alternative realities, alternate dimensions, alternative existences, and so forth.
    Thus, I get a strange feeling about such things as alt-music, alt-food, alt-fiction, alt-rock, alt-literature, alt-lifestyle, alt-sex, and alt-government. Freaky!

    In an element of humor in some of his short stories, the S.F. writer Isaac Asimov had his characters enjoying themselves by drinking “Martian jabra water”, maybe an intoxicating liquid, maybe not. Anyway, that seems like an “alt-drink” or an “alt-liquor”. Other, slightly newer liquids introduced to us by STAR TREK include “Saurian brandy” and “Romulan ale”. As for Saurian brandy, when Captain Kirk wanted some, he wanted it badly, and he demanded that Dr. McCoy give him some, or else!

    When I was living in San Diego, I saw a truck go by that had the logo “Jabra Corporation” on it, and the company’s phone number. I had to call it, and when I inquired, nobody there had ever heard of “Martian jabra water”, and they only knew a little bit about Isaac Asimov.
    I had been rather hoping that the founders of the company were fans of Asimov and that they had named the company for that mysterious liquid “Martian jabra water”. Too bad!

  • Dale A. Wood

    Speaking of alternative sex, Asimov wrote an award-winning novel about an intelligent race, in an alternative university, lived in bodies that were made of electrically-charged plasmas. There were three sexes, and in order for them to reproduce, the three had to merge into one plasma, and then there was a period of time when none of them was aware of what was going on. The three sexes consisted of a) An intellectual type, and the one who went out in the world and earned a living, b) A homeish type that was concerned about taking care of the house, property, food, and children (if any), and c) the third type, who was rather mysterious to the others, and was treated rather like a pet. However, this third type had love and sex on “her” mind all the time, and “she” was responsible for bringing about the “joining” that produced children.
    And then the tale got complicated from there! Like I said, it was in an alternative universe!

  • venqax

    Interesting and timely. The term “alt-right” seemed to many who were suddenly asking about it to drop suddenly from the sky about 2 weeks ago with no context at all. The definition of “alt” mentioned– “Denoting a version of something, especially music, that is intended as a challenge to the traditional version” –works only partly for me because while I know “alt” is short for alternative, I’ve not thought of alternative– including alternative music– as being necessarily intended to challenge tradition, but merely as an alternative “other choice” to the mainstream or most common version of something. I think being traditional can in fact be quite “alt” in some arenas, like college-campus politics. The use it’s being hauled out for with alt-right seems a bit off to me because it’s not clear what the groups so labeled have in common or are supposed to be an alternative to. They are not new, in some cases represent ideas that are more “traditional” than the recent mainstream of the political right, and in other cases there is nothing about them that is even right-wing.

  • venqax

    As something of an aside, this also brings forward the unfortunate fact that “alternate” and “alternative” have in American English become interchangeable in contexts where only “alternative” should be acceptable.

  • Agua Caliente

    C. 1989 there were many alt.* newsgroups around. I recall that when Australia came on board, the Ozzies heated up alt.flame pretty well! Also want to lament along with venqax about the unfortunate alternate/alternative situation.

  • Glenn Farrell

    As Agua Caliente said, ‘alt.*’ on the usenet has become an ingrained source of ‘alt’ among nerds; like many things from nerd-dom it’s become part of our culture. Notwithstanding the other historical aspects, I’d posit that ‘alt’s’ present ascendency is the overflow from the usenet days. Along with ‘RTFM’, ‘lol’ ‘ROFL’ etc, these things have entered the vernacular.

  • Richard Wheeler

    As noted in the first paragraph, the term, as a prefix, gained prominence recently in the rhetoric of the Hillary Clinton campaign. The specific usage was intended to denote more than “a political movement supporting nationalism and opposing multiculturalism and liberal immigration policies.” In context, the usage was intended to create an alt-reality by associating extremes of racism, sexism, and politically incorrect -phobias with all of Clinton’s opponents.

  • Dale A. Wood

    To me: “alt-right” refers to computer keyboards again. It means to press the “Alt key” and the right arrow simultaneously. Of course “alt-left” could mean something else, and “alt-up” and “alt-down” could be defined to be other things.
    Where would be a logical place to use these? One would be in an picture-processing program with a GUI.

  • Dale A. Wood

    There is a deep difference between “alternate” and “alternative” that goes all the way back to the ancient Greek and Latin roots, but few people pay attention to anymore and have no concerns about.
    “Alternate” refers to a two-choice (binary) decision, between A and B. Another way of looking at it is that there is a primary and a secondary, with no other choices such as a tertiary. There are a President and one Vice-President, and no more. There is a lead actor/actress, and just one understudy in either case.
    “Alternative” refers to situations in which there can be more than two choices, Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, and so on, or in other words, a primary, a secondary, a tertiary, and maybe more. At least, in older languages, was the was that it was, and “old” does not have to be extremely old: it could mean 19th century and even 20th century English. For example, someone could work in the Legislative Branch, the Executive Branch, or the Judiciary Branch of a government. A living being can be male, female, or asexual (including human beings).

    In electrical engineering, we have AC = “alternating current”, which means that sometimes the current flows from point X to point Y, and sometimes it flows from point Y to point X. There are not any more choices, except for zero current, which is negligible.
    In geometry and pairs of parallel lines, we have “alternate interior angles”, which come in pairs, and “alternate exterior angles”, which also come in pairs.
    In geometry, we also have Euclidean Geometry and its alternate, Non-Euclidean Geometry. Then upon taking a closer look, there are more than one form of Non-Euclidean geometry! Now the word “alternative” applies because there are Euclidean geometry, spherical geometry, and hyperbolic geometry. There are also some other ones that can be defined, but they are not so useful as these three are.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Especially in the field of education, the Australians and New Zealanders are found of the word “tertiary” in a way that is not used in North America. (I don’t know about the way it is in Europe, Africa, and Asia.)
    In those countries in the Southern Hemisphere, they have primary education and secondary education (high schools), just like we do in North America. Then they use to phrase “tertiary education” to refer to education in colleges, universities, community colleges, technical/ trade schools, seminaries, and so forth.
    In North America, we just refer to those as belonging to “higher education”.

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