March 15, 2017
The telecopying of document (i.e. creation, transmission, and recovery of facsimiles) was with us for almost a century, from the dawn of telephony — but not very popular until the name of the process was shortened to the catchy word, “fax.” That is a sharp illustration of the power of a succinct word or phrase. For the same reason, the word for photographs (“pictures”) is now routinely replaced with “pix”; and nobody talks about taking a self-portrait (with a cell phone) anymore, but just a “selfie.”
Where does it end? And is it really creative? Does it not lead to obfuscation, making an otherwise clear message quite murky? Not long ago the media used to refer to police dogs as a “Canine Unit” (from canis, the Latin word for dog). Then someone realized that “canine” sounded like “K-9” and now even our print media have abandoned the accurate forms and begun to write routinely about “K-9s” in police units.
One wonders why “K-9” is now preferred in US English. K-9 is not easier or shorter to write or say than “dog” or “canine.” It is not even a clarification: indeed it is the opposite of clarification. Soon students will no longer know or remember the provenance of the term “K-9.” The degradation of our language is going beyond words to embrace the emerging fusion of words and pictures. In cell phone text messaging “U” stands for you, “ur” for your, “2” for “to,” and “4” for “for.” Thus, “I heart u” means I love you (the heart becoming a proxy for love). Now, try and translate “A K-9 is gud 4 u”; that’s the standard English of cell-phone texting, no doubt the English language of tomorrow.
And then there’s the fastest-growing sector of obfuscation: the perceived need to “supersize” every existing word, especially adjectives. It used to be a thing was small, medium, or large (big); then, with time, along came “enormous” from Latin e-normis (literally out of the normal); later we discovered “gigantic” (for “big as a giant”) and “tremendous” (causing a quake by its sheer size!). Then the “baby-boomer” generation created “humongous” (perhaps a cut-and-nail amalgam of “huge” and “monstrous”). Nowadays, teenagers combine “gigantic” and “enormous” to fashion “ginormous.” Inundated as we are with frenetic commercial advertising, we have all become self-boosters now, leap-frogging one-another with escalating comparisons.
Where will it all end?