Friday, January 28, 2011

Language Matters

Today's headline in the sports section of my daily newspaper, The Orlando Sentinel, caught my eye: "Athletes are Twits when they Tweet without Thinking" by Mike Bianchi.

First, my linguistic radar picked up the British term "twit" for nitwit, now rendered more widespread by Twitter. And I began to think of the small incursion of British terms in current U.S. usage. At least in print I have seen a number of words seldom used by most Americans until recently: queue (as used by Netflix, for example); keen (as in eager); bespoke (tailor-made) suits; and the expression "gone missing" instead of "is missing," among newsfolk reporting on abductions.

The only point here is simple: that the great threat posed by Americanisms on the English language is sometimes reversed when movies, TV, and even old-fashioned print media import words and idioms from the UK, making us on both sides of the Atlantic aware of what G. B. Shaw (not, as often thought, Winston Churchill) famously said: We are two nations divided by a common language.

The other point about Twitter, the one made by Bianchi, is more substantial: that with every new invention, there comes responsibility. The new social media require guidelines so that offensive language and inaccurate information, along with ungrammatical embarrassments, are not imposed on hapless readers.

The athletic twits who think their texting comes with total freedom need to stop and think. Ideally, they should seek editorial help, as in the days when sports writers and managers made sure that professional players spoke at least somewhat coherently and professionally rather than make fools of themselves or, what is worse, unleash hate speech or abuse willy nilly.

This week's New Yorker has a cartoon somewhat related: people filing out of The Church of OMG all flip open their cell phones. I suspect some of this has to do with the need to have something to do with our hands in public now that smoking is verboten. So when I laugh at the current trend (obsession?) with hand-held electronic devices, I can be grateful that it's a lot more healthy and useful than lighting cigarettes. It may even be a way to be centered and quiet in the midst of an overly busy, noisy world.

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