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Lost Words

 

Way, way back in the day—like 15 years ago—the emergence of e-mail was thrilling to me. I loved that I could have a rolling conversation with someone, even a group of people, stretched over hours, days, even weeks, along with the ability to choose my words, edit and re-edit my thoughts, look over the arc of the conversation, and chew on responses in my inbox.

E-mail also lifted the burden of telephone conversation, the need for there to be the often awkward, uncomfortable, time-consuming and unnecessary introductory small talk. I generally don’t care how someone’s “doing,” even my friends, and chances are they aren’t going to tell me anyway, but still there is this societal prerogative to start every damned telephone conversation with a “How’re you doing?” And too often this innocuous question elicits a response, irrelevant to the planned topic of the conversation, derailing thought, subject, and emphasis. I’m as guilty of this as anybody; if something really good or bad has happened to me, I’ll answer the “How’re you doing?” by narcissistically blabbing away to the no-doubt totally uninterested person on the other end of the line. Then there is the equally difficult denouement, the winding-down and wrapping-up of the conversation. Again, societal prerogative demands that a phone conversation have a sufficient duration lest one appear abrupt if not outright rude, and this results in a stilted, strained, and totally useless jumble of words designed to allow one to just get the hell off the phone already.

E-mail allowed one to forego all of this, and to make a point or ask a question, hit it and quit it, press send, fade to black, it’s a wrap, bébé. A five-minute phone call is now a 10-second dance on the keyboard, and so much more effective.

But even more than the convenience of it, e-mail ushered in what I thought was going to be a new golden era of the written word. As long-distance telephone charges tanked in the ’80s and ’90s, most people stopped writing letters to each other. Those of us who are word people (you know who you are) seized on e-mail as a way to reclaim the written word as a primary communication tool. Even in shortened e-mail form, it’s a glorious thing for us; we can tinker with sentence structure and even use those big words we never figured out how to pronounce correctly. We can craft with words again.

And it struck me that this would spill over to everyone. I’d see my kids, just learning to write, stretching their little brains, putting together coherent sentences and getting their spelling right in order to talk to their friends via e-mail. “This is just brilliant,” I was thinking.

Then along comes instant- and text-messaging, and my grand hopes and dreams for the written word get all shot to hell! Now, instead of nuanced wordplay, we get truncated, vowel-less shorthand, a denuded language that strives to communicate tiny thoughts in the simplest, starkest way. I dnt lk t. T sks. I mn t. Sks!

And the extent to which kids have embraced texting, to the utter derogation of straight-up e-mailing, is dramatic and depressing. Recent studies have shown that kids consider e-mail to be profoundly uncool, a geezer thing, about as useful to them as sending smoke signals in a windy day. I’ll forward an e-mail to my kid, and then have to remind her in a face-to-face conversation to check her e-mail for my message. Somehow, in a few short years, e-mail has become irrelevant—or, worse than that, a dinosaur—to our kids.

Perhaps even more weirdly, kids seem to have a proprietary interest in IM and text messaging. They seem to think it’s theirs alone, a devolved linguistic sanctuary into which adults should not wander. An adult breaking into their little communications orb is every bit as horrifying to a kid as say, having a parent with a band with a MySpace page. (Thanks for that one, Roz Chast!) Believe me, I know.

So the little thumbs frantically punch in incomprehensible streams of acronyms and gibberish, shot out over multi-billion dollar wireless networks, bouncing off satellites, and rocketing through fiber. We could have worse problems; they could be just not communicating at all.

But I do wish it could be different. Words are important. Call me old- fashioned.

—Paul Rapp


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