Everything is always going straight to hell

January 17, 2012

The other day I seconded Jan Freeman’s dismissal of Ron Rosenbaum’s carrying-on at Slate as the self-appointed “catchphrase executioner” of vogue usages that annoy him.

Now there’s an article at Gizmodo asserting that hashtags, those words or phrases preceded by an octothorpe (#) on Twitter and Facebook, are “ruining the language.” The hashtag, Sam Biddle rants (“rant” is the logo for the article) “is a vulgar crutch, a lazy reach for substance in the personal void—written clipart.”

Well, maybe, but language has a good deal of ruin in it to exhaust. For a more thorough, thoughtful, and intelligent look at the hashtag phenomenon, with a feast of links, I refer you to an article by Mark Liberman at Language Log.

One salient paragraph from the article: “Among vaguely similar cultural developments in the past, I can think of the ‘fad for comical abbreviations that flourished in the late 1830s and 1840s’; the ironic use of stage directions (‘exit, stage left’); the rise of emoticons in the 1980s and 1990s; the use of HTML-ish verbal emoticons or text actions like or . No doubt readers will be able to think of others.”

So just as the tides of language continually fling neologisms and vogue usages onto the beach, so do they generate fads like the hashtag and the emoticon.

Then we get the inevitable lamentations that the language is being ruined and the barbarians are inside the keep. Let me suggest that instead of getting the jim-jams over these phenomena, we could adopt a more discriminating approach.

If you don’t like these novelties, don’t use them. It’s usually fairly easy to avoid the people who do. Lean back and enjoy the glow of your quiet superiority. In time, the novelty will fade as the early adopters go haring off after something fresher. If the novelty does stick, you can then use it yourself without appearing to have changed your position.

Or, like H.L. Menckenin writing The American Language or the Language Log set, you can give the novelties some close examination, hefting them, probing them, trying to understand what purpose they serve and why people make use of them. There is endless fascination in language and the purposes to which people put it.

You can hold your indignation in reserve for the targets that merit it. When Verizon, for example, decides to charge people for paying their bills and call the charge a “convenience fee,” you can unload on the company for meretricious conduct. Or, when the government of the United States shamefully decides to call waterboarding, which previous governments of the United States had called torture and prosecuted as a war crime, an “enhanced interrogation technique,” then you can ram a full charge of indignation into the muzzle and hold a lighted match to the touchhole.

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