Stonecutters Are Paid By the Word

July 20, 2011

I believe we can build a better world. Of course it’ll take a lot of rock, water, and dirt. Also not sure where to put it.

That little piece of wit, ladies and gentlemen, was conveyed by Twitter. There has been a lot said on the subject of decline of language lately, and much of what was said laid the responsibility on newer ways of communicating. Twitter has taken a beating in some quarters for its confining each communication to 144 characters, thus limiting discourse in a severe way; but an effusion like the one above shows that carefully chosen words can convey some degree of subtlety in even fewer characters.

Traditional correspondence has always had an honored place for economy of language. Even before the rise of telegraph and cables with their by-the-word charges, there were pressing reasons to think carefully about leanness of expression. (P.G. Wodehouse delightfully lampoons the idiotic telegrams of young men endowed with more dollars than sense.) Consider the note left on calling cards. The scribbled abbreviation P.P.C., for pour prendre congé, was once used in leaving one’s card before leaving town; and there were cognate abbreviations for calls of condolence (pour condoler), congratulation (pour feliciter), and thanks (pour remercier).

Invitations are still a locus classicus of carefully selected words — of course reflected in our retaining the handy abbreviation R.S.V.P. And the care with which we write our more ceremonious, obligatorily handwritten messages make them in some ways the higher-born relatives of the “tweet.”

In his BBC series English Delight, Stephen Fry has a characteristically brilliant 30-minute commentary on virtues of brevity that are as valid for rowdy new media as for the more venerable ones. It can be heard at this link for five more days.

So it’s not yet time to scrawl R.I.P. on good English yet.

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Please note: Some will have noticed, I hope, that I have long had a link, at the bottom of the page, to the wonderful company called Thornwillow. I am now also blogging for their site and will sometimes link to something there. This cross-post is the last time I will duplicate (or cross-post, as we say these days) between the sites, but this one will serve as a notification of my split blogging activities.

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