It’s the End of the Word as We Know It

June 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

People have been fretting about the debasement of the English language for centuries. Nowadays, the worry is about texting. Just Google “texting language deterioration” and you’ll get more than 400,000 hits, with questions and declarations such as “Is text messaging destroying the English Language?” “Why text messaging has caused the deterioration of proper English usage.” “How texting is wrecking our language,” ad (almost) infinitum.

Well, 130 years ago, “brevity” and “slang’ were the linguistic controversies of the day. And when you think about it, texting is all about brevity. And as the following editorial points out, not everybody thought brevity bad in the 1880s. There was a general sense of optimism then about the future, and the marvels of science and technology that were going to make life better, than exists today.

BREVITY.

How Abbreviation Keeps Pace With The Times.

The tendency of the age is abbreviation. Steamships are steadily shortening voyages across the ocean; railways are shortening voyages across the land. The telegraph is shortening the intervals of intercourse. The telephone is shortening the abbreviations of the telegraph. The telescope is shortening the distance to the stars. Supreme court decisions are shortening the general confidence in the law. Slang is shortening the luxuriance of language by the substitution of inelegant conciseness. “Dude” is shorter than “dandy,” and means more. “Monkeying” is shorter than “cutting monkey shines,” and is humorous as well as compact. “Collided” has always been a regular past tense of “collie,” but till the condensing reported forced it on an unwilling public, it was always deemed inelegant to say anything but “came into collision.” Now comes “suicided” for “committed suicide” and why not? The purists will gossip and even the liberal scholar will admit that if it does not “break precision’s head,” it thumps it. But why not put one word for three, when the one says all that the three possibly can? Are we to say that language is fixed, when there is not a year that passes without the addition of a thousand words of science or slang? If not fixed, what better change can we make than to shorten it? What we lose in grace we gain in grit. Force is better than elegance. No man ever commanded men or advanced a cause by periphrases. “Stamp it out,” says force. “Proceed by severe measures to repress it,” says elegance. “Suicided” sounds queer; we’re not used to it, that’s all that’s the matter with it. But why not make a verb of the noun “suicide” as well as of the noun “mistake” or the noun “home”? We say “the farmer was mistaken when he housed his cattle so late.” Why not say “the victim of disappointment suicided when he collided with insuperable difficulties,” instead of “going all round Robin Hood’s barn” with these periphrases: “the victim of disappointment committed suicide when he came into collision with insuperable difficulties”? The reporter is the language reformer. When the time is short from the pen to the press, the “case” must have as little to do as possible, and the reporter must make one word do the work of three. In ten years “suicided” will be as good a word as “derided” or “confided.”

I don’t understand the writer’s preoccupation with the word “suicide” and its variations, nor what “good” means (I assume it means something like “commonly used”) but let’s take a look at the predictions he made in the last sentence above, in the light of today. The results of my Googling:

“suicided”: 535,000 and the question, “Did you mean suicide?”

“committed suicide”: 12.9 million

“confided”: 13.7 million

“derided”: 3.6 million

Final verdict: “suicided” — Accepted, but not embraced.

And as to how you would “brevit” any of those words for texting or tweeting, I haven’t a clue. I’m guessing they wouldn’t be used at all.

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