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<   No. 618   2004-10-05   >

Comic #618

1 Marlowe: {addressing his staff in the meeting room} Realigning revenusability metrics encapsulates leveraging scalable synergistic functionality paradigms, proactivating robust scenario rolloutsourcing methodologies.
2 Ophelia: {whispering to Will} Ugh, corporate buzzword-speak. I don't think I've ever heard English abused so badly!
3 Shakespeare: English is a living language, Ophelia. The great writers of the past used to invent new words and usages all the time.
4 Ophelia: Well, it was okay when the smartest people did it. But nowadays it's the stupidest people doing it.

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It's an eternal struggle. English is a living language, no matter how much people cringe at new words and migrating meanings. Language has to evolve to keep pace with society - we need words to describe new inventions and ideas that never existed before. And clever and creative use of language is a hallmark of interesting and worthwhile literature. We wouldn't have the word chortle if Lewis Carroll hadn't just made it up. And Shakespeare (the 16th century one) invented over 1,700 words, including assassination, bedroom, critic, eyeball, luggage, radiance, torture, and zany. If people had complained about these newfangled usages and refused to accept them as part of English, imagine how much poorer our language today would be.

And yet, we cringe when we see things like wot a looser, ur kidding me, WTF? LOL! in our kids' English essays. Or when we hear business executives spewing out jawbreaking sentences like Mr Marlowe above. Why is this? As long as the target audience understands and communication occurs without a problem, why should we decry the format of the message?

It's a complex question, with no ready answers. Clearly some change is acceptable, and desirable, as our society evolves. But does that mean any change is okay? Personally, I don't think so. Like any tool, language can be good or bad, depending on how it's used. A lot of these new coinages are opaque to much of society, and we're starting to see a generational divide, with younger people using a different form of English to that used by older people and by established literature. Of course, that's happened before too - nobody these days speaks like Shakespeare did - but today the pace of change is a lot faster, accelerated by our technology. I fear that one day soon we will have a society in which people will be speaking multiple mutually unintelligible versions of English, and confusion may creep in.

Good new English comes up with clever reinterpretations of words or coinages with comprehensible roots, that people can understand with a bit of thought, and that are readily memorable and widely applicable. Bad new English is opaque, requires explicit explanation as to what it means, obscures existing meanings, and causes confusion when used outside a resticted context. A lot of the new coinages out there today are bad new English.

The problem is, with technology allowing mass communication on an unprecendented scale, bad new English can propagate. And once it reaches a certain threshold, it can actually mutate into something that most people understand and accept. It's a new process, and like it or hate it, it's going to keep on happening. We will just have to evolve to cope. Maybe the next generation will be fluently multilingual, able to interact in abbreviated netspeak, casual English, more formal English, and still be able to get something from Shakespeare's texts. Whatever happens, the common English of 100 years from now will probably be more different to today's English than today's English is to Shakespeare's English. And the Bard would probably be very interested to see it.

2013-10-19 Rerun commentary: This topic is a can of worms, as the pace of change continues to grow. A lot of new usage these days tends to spring from people using a word to mean what they think it means, rather than what has been the previously accepted meaning.

As long as everyone thinks it means the new thing, there's actually no problem. But there will always be people who hold out that it doesn't mean that, it only means the thing it used to mean before.

I think that we shall never see the end of this conflict.

On another note, I am very impressed that I managed to make Mr Marlowe's speech entirely out of corporate buzzwords, without any annoying conventional words such as articles or prepositions intruding.

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