Much has been made (not enough, I say!) about the kids and their Twittering that is ruining the English language.
Prescriptivists Acolytes have condemned the service. The hashtag has been decreed a harbinger of doom. Unfortunately, things have been terrible for much, much longer. #observationfail
In last week’s New Yorker, Daniel Mendelsohn noted that the Carpathia’s radio operators, the “computer geeks of their day,” responded to the Titanic’s distress call with the insouciant, “What is the matter with U?” [Check out more exchanges here, where the Titanic adorably says they “hit a berg.”] Should the Carpathia’s radio operator have had the decorum to send, “You” instead of “U,” well, we will never know what would have happened. #imjustsayin
Sadly, it seems this blatant disrespect for proper discourse dates to the very birth of the Victorian Internet, as Tom Standage noted in his fantastic book. Though it spawned decades of economic growth and facilitated the building of the railroad, the telegraph destroyed written English (and with federal funding to boot).
Only punks interested in wasting everyone’s time would have the gall to say “UR” for your, “NW” for now and “Hee” for nice phallus quip. Why were they in such a hurry? Did they have somewhere better to be? Why did “88” mean “best regards (to a woman)”? Who is this woman and what is the nature of these regards? One can only assume a harlot and seedy.
The first U.S. telegraph line, from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore, was completed in 1844, so surely that must have been the start of this silly shortening business. If only that were true.
During the 1830s, an even more insidious trend caught hold. Young, educated fashionable types began abbreviating things not for any practical purpose but just for the hell of it. But these weren’t just any old abbreviations. These were abbreviations based on intentional misspellings. And they appeared in newspapers no less!
It is this trend that birthed one of our most beloved Americanisms, “OK.” Thanks to the work of etymologist and lexicographer Allen Walker Read, we know that “OK” first appeared in print in the Boston Morning Post on March 23, 1839 as an in-joke where “OK,” which was abbreviated from the misspelling “oll korrect,” meant “all correct.” (Contrary to popular belief, the campaign of Martin “Old Kinderhook” Van Buren did not create “OK,” but it did probably solidify its place in language.)
Okay OK, fine. So some kids intentionally started misspelling phrases and then abbreviating those misspelled phrases. But who remembers “K.G.” for “know go,” “N.S.M.T.” for “‘Nough said ‘Mong Gentlemen,” or “K.K.K.” (#yep) for “Commit No Nuisance”? What does it have to do with today?
A simple search at the homepage of Reddit, the perennial purveyor of geek cool, for “kewl” yields a page full of usage. Too bad, according to History, the “kewl” geeks of the 1830s already thought of that one. They can also be credited with an early form of “deez” in “DZ,” though it would take another 160 years and the rise of gangsta rap for the world to see “deez nutz.”
[Image via Wired]