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.