Losing Words January 13, 2010Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings, Technology.
In their 1972 hit Sylvia’s Mother, pop group Dr. Hook tells the story of a jilted lover trying to reach his ex-girlfriend, only to be stopped by her mother. As he pleads his case on the phone, the memorable hook of the song tells how the operator kept breaking in, demanding “forty cents more, for the next three minutes.”
As I listened to this song recently, it occurred to me that a younger audience might be puzzled by these unusual lyrics. What is an “operator?” Why would they be demanding money? Forty cents for three minutes? How would you pay them? Technology has marched on, leaving language (and old pop hits) behind.
The operator, of course, was a human who helped complete calls. Before cell phones, people used pay phones to make calls away from home, ponying up spare change to stay on the line. While the first three minutes might run you a dime (and later, a quarter), subsequent blocks of three minutes could cost a lot more. To stay on the line, you fed change into the phone.
To the modern ear, this sounds no different from instructions on how to tan your own leather or fashion a thatch roof. The concepts are so foreign that the words barely make sense. Yet this song describes things that were commonplace just thirty years ago!
Much of our language is derived from current technology, forming a common cultural base. As the rate of technological change increases, language cannot keep up, stranding all sorts of shared phrases. While amusing, I think it also creates an ever-wider disconnect between generations, making communication more difficult.
Even in the past ten years, many ideas have simply disappeared. Back last century, people needed to rewind things. Now, no modern device requires rewinding. We’re at the point where nothing spins to make music; how would a 50s DJ describe his world if unable to “spin stacks of wax?” People will soon wonder why we “dial” phones. I suspect that the number of US citizens that have actually operated a dial telephone is rapidly declining.
In a similar fashion, acronyms continue to shrink, encoding more information in shorter sounds. During World War II, acronyms started out as concatenated syllables from related words, pronounced as a single word. “CINCPAC” is the Commander-In-Chief of the Pacific, “CONUS” is the Continental US, and so forth.
By the 1960s, acronyms became individual letters strung together to make words (NASA, ASCII, etc). This happy state has existed for a while, and no product or process worth its salt is without a clever acronym that forms a related word.
Now we’ve started pronouncing the acronyms for shorthand abbreviations, creating new words. I’ve actually heard people say “lol” and “brb” in running conversation, without a hint of sarcasm. This is different from traditional acronyms, which typically represent nouns. Now we are collapsing and pronouncing verb phrases and even whole short sentences. This cannot be good for general communication.
What to do? Not much, I’m afraid. In between more-frequent trips to Urban Dictionary, I’ll go back to listening to Dr. Hook. They had another hit song that involved getting their picture on the cover of a magazine. As I understand it, a “magazine” is like an entire web site, printed and bound as a sequence of “pages.” The “cover” is the first page, and often had a photo on it. Imagine!
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