words at play: or, how i learned to love the interwebz

note: it’s been a couple years since i actively spoke Arabic, and some of this stuff is culturally specific. so don’t yell at me about it, ok?

i have been known to rant (just a little bit) about how other languages are so much cooler than english. for example, in Arabic (which i studied in college) there are words that we just don’t have — which can be interesting, and also irritating. i challenge anyone trying to remember which of the 16 words for “cousin” you want to use to NOT find that irritating. but on the whole, it is more interesting than not — especially when it comes to ritual phrases. for example, there is a word that is basically a universally-useful word of commiseration. another of my favorites: there is really only one correct answer to “how are you?”, and it translates (more or less) to “praise be to god!”. which you can then follow up with anything you like, including how awful your life is, but you at least start off that way. because you are alive, and that is something to be thankful for.

does english have these things? well, kind of — slang. and, let’s be honest here, we are SWIMMING in slang. we have DIALECTS of slang. and the kind i find the most interesting currently, once i started really thinking about it, is the kind that develops online. possibly because i spend three-quarters of my day connected to the internet. but if you’re reading this blog, chances are you do too. so that’s neither here nor there.

i think a lot of people are irritated by tech-memes. for example, the no-caps thing. someone complained about that recently on twitter, asking if it was REALLY THAT HARD (my emphasis) to just hit the shift key now and then. as an offender, i made a joke about being lazy. but honestly? i couldn’t remember when i’d stopped using correct capitalization in casual online communications. i use them all the time — anything that is connected to work gets not only capitals but is proofread to within an inch of its life, including (most of the time) emails. but in my personal communications, blog posts (case in point), twitter, and whatnot, i don’t tend to use them. except, sometimes, for proper nouns that just look weird to me lower-case. ANYWAY. the point i am trying to make is that it’s an adaptive thing — professional, standard; personal, slang.

and then there is the wonderful world of web slang: teh. interwebs, intertubes, and the other variants. sekrit. LOL & 5 mabillion other acronyms. that whole lolcats thing. and the history of memes like these is really interesting. (shut up, it IS!) a lot of this stuff evolved out of gaming (FTW, w00t, etc), or from common finger-slips (teh), or out of making fun of people who couldn’t type well enough to NOT make those finger-slips, or who didn’t bother to look over what they’d written before they hit ‘send’, or who flub up in discussing tech (i’m thinking here of that whole ‘series of tubes’ thing). which is where the really fun part is: irony and web slang. and twitter is my favorite place to observe it in action.

some of my favorite people on twitter NEVER use this kind of slang. or at least, i can’t remember the last time i saw them do it. and some of my other favorite people use it liberally. i go back and forth, myself — i’ll try to stop, or at least cut back, but i inevitably return to it. why? because it’s shorthand — i can convey quickly and easily something that would take longer to say. and with a 140 character limit, shorthand is vital. so, yes, from time to time i will use ZOMG to express intense surprise/enthusiasm/shock. i am currently playing around with HAH and its variants, as opposed to LOL et al (that will probably be another post). there are more examples, but you either already know them or really don’t care. or both.

even more than their shorthand capabilities, i love them because they are playful. they are often unpronounceable (although i have heard that there is a generation or two out there that say these things OUT LOUD, which makes my soul cringe), which makes it even more fun. i had a teacher in college who was really into the inherent possibilities of text, and used a graphic novel (that i have been unable to remember the name of or search out, despite numerous attempts) that had characters named things like Mr. ? and Mr. ! to illustrate his point. how would you say that out loud? you can’t, at least not in a way that retains the flow and intention of the text. makes you stop and think.

and now i will get pretentious on you and reference e e cummings. that man, say whatever else you like about him, knew how to play with language and was EXCITED about it. i challenge anyone to read really any of his work (but the one i always go to is i sing of Olaf) and, ignoring politics and topic and context, not see the glee in every phrase. i think that he would have loved the interwebz. some of what passes for web slang is lazy, some of it is more obnoxious than the rest, but most of it contains a sense of play that you rarely see in writing anywhere else. people are connecting with words, playing with words, making those words their own — and that is a good thing. no matter how much it annoys you when someone types “LMFAO”.

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words at play: or, how i learned to love the interwebz

2 thoughts on “words at play: or, how i learned to love the interwebz

  1. Great post about language online and off. I stay away from a lot of online slang but have been known to embellish with the occasional WTF. My online life is enough an extension of my professional life that I keep it to a minimum- but let’s face it, I’m a bit of a prig even in real life when it comes to language. LOL.

  2. Suz says:

    delightful post and i am thrilled to see another who shuns capitalization in personal correspondence. it just slows me down. e e cummings was my absolute favorite poet in school. i do think that the decline of our grammatical civilization began when Prince changed his name to a squiggly line. thanks for a great end to my weekend. smiles!

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