It was a recent headline that sent me wondering:
“Power outages restored after quick moving storms.”
I have no doubt that the citizens who were jolted into “Dancing With the Toddlers in Tiaras” were overjoyed to be thrust back into darkness. Who needs cable when one can loll peacefully in silence? The headline seemed to insinuate that power was out, inadvertently restored, and was then returned to “outness”. A scan over some of my favorite (and widely respected!) daily papers found more of the same:
“People who believe themselves possessed sometimes blame themselves for allowing themselves to have become spiritually unhealthy through succumbing to vice.”
Whoever “they” are, they’re pretty fairly represented by the nouns in this sentence.
And a plow shall lead them to prosperity.
“Ex-Russian banker victim in shooting”
First the victim of an ex-Russian banker, then an ex-Russian, then just a mass shooting? Who knows?
I’m pretty sure that William Safire sits bolt upright in his grave every morning when the daily rag hits the pavement. “What is it going to be today?”
Part of the problem may be in the rush to content. The perusal of your publication used to be dictated by a human being. It was called an “editor”. They checked spelling, syntax, punctuation, examined the sentences and phrases for flow and cadence, and determined where it would fall in the reader’s cycle. The editor was the crusty veteran chomping on the cigar proclaiming, “We’re gonna lead with it!”
The editor today is a combination of computer software to determine what’s trending, what words are recognizable, and what phrases are similar. I doubt that content is thoroughly vetted before being rushed onto the web. I blame part of this on Twitter.
Twitter is remarkable due in large part to the immediacy. Things hit the social network far faster than they hit newspapers, magazines, and even cable news. A notable death or new sex tape is “so this morning” far before it makes it into print. And it does so in limited characters.
I was a supervisor in a previous life. I hired a lovely young lady to work part time while she finished school. She seemed a bright girl, and was finishing her Master’s at a reputable local university. She soon, however, developed an issue with punctuality. I am not insinuating a few moments, like a stuck-in-traffic late. I’m talking half-hour to an hour late. Her first offense brought the excuse, “I had a test”. I gave her the “angry bald man” look and admonished her. The second offense was rewarded with “I wanted to see my advisor”. I warned her that I was going to be forced to document her tardiness. On her third offense I wrote her up. The document offered her the opportunity to pen a rebuttal. Her response will forever be seared into my brain:
“Why he mad at me idk. Late b/c I had to finish papar.”
…While on her way to a Master’s Degree.
Spelling is only part of the equation. Take this example:
“Arocdnicg to rsceearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer are in the rghit pcale.”
Made sense, didn’t it? It wasn’t until the invention of the printing press that we considered standardizing words, and even then there were variations. That’s why you can go to Europe and see a “colour” film in a “theatre”. There are several variations to the spelling of Shakespeare, each apparently coming from the actual author. While we frequently lob a riposte in tongues other than English, the language itself can be a maze of confusion.
“The damage to the course was severe, though only the largest boughs fell in the rough.”
It would perhaps be easier if we regressed to Chauvet, and everything was phonetic.
How do you spell that?
“Muh-Uh-Un-Gah. Like it sounds, you caveman.”
I often fear that we are losing the gift of language. We don’t think about the power of a word, much less about what we commit to paper (virtual or otherwise). Language has devolved from “We were born before the wind, also younger than the sun. Ere the bonnie boat was won as we sailed into the mystic” to “Get you love drunk off my hump, my hump, my hump, my hump my hump my hump.”
I write for a living, and fancy myself loquacious. Words for me are pieces of music, and turns of phrase dance in my head like earworms for weeks before I finally commit my fingers to a keyboard. I stand accused of a mouth that often travels with much greater dispatch than the alacrity of my grey matter. I am never certain whether to roam the twisted path of Tolstoy or slide an Occam’s razor of simple prose. “There was an old man. He caught a very big fish.” Perhaps Hemingway was right.
Either way, I mourn the passing of proper diction, of adequate punctuation, and of reading things that were actually well written. In a time of 140 characters and social readers, I offer a dirge to printed matter. I hereby submit a condemnation of the “delete” key for a hymn to WhiteOut. Consider this a requiem to the wordsmith. George Orwell, while a few decades too late, predicted the coming of Big Brother. He was also remarkably prescient when he said,
“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language.”
Say goodnight, George.