28 June 2010

Hello, Lady!

In one of my first posts, back in April of last year, i mentioned the word 'dreary' and how it's lost power and meaning throughout the centuries of use. That's now the only direction language flows. It also fills words with more depth, more meaning, more fullness as time wanes onward.

I came across the origin of the word 'lady.' It comes from the Old English (similar to the word 'dreary'). Originally it was spelled 'hlāēfdīge.' Don't ask me to pronounce it; i don't speak Old English. Through the Middle Ages, it transformed into 'lafdi' then 'ladi' to arrive at something close to our current 'lady'. However, the meaning was thoroughly different from what we hold today; 'hlāēfdīge' means 'loaf-kneader.'

The original lady was a job description, similar to butcher, baker, or candle-stick maker. (Maybe that last one went a bit too far.) Our current use, by contrast, is much more broad, and much more rich. We use the term 'lady' today to refer to a woman in a polite manner. We also use it as a title, referring to an individual's social status. We group it in phrases such as 'ladies and gentlemen'--an opening phrase of respect for both genders--and 'lady and the tramp'--a juxtaposition between two individuals of distinctly separate social standing. What once was considered a title of menial labor has become a dignified label of courtesy.

It has also kept a bit of a brusque nature. When used in lieu of a name--'Lady, please pass the salt'--it holds a more direct and impolite weight behind it. Yet even this is a filling out of hlāēfdīge. The word 'lady' projects more than the task of a simple loaf-kneader. It displays a certain vanity, a distinct femininity behind even the most abrupt usage, a femininity that extends beyond kitchen or housework.

Where 'dreary' acts as a cautionary tale of the life that can be drained from a word when used poorly, or overused, 'lady' is a standard to which we can aspire. Language is a sword. When used properly, it is the foil or sabre of fencing; designed for style and specific attack targets. Wielded carelessly, it becomes a machete, a utility that does the job, but tears down much in the process.

11 June 2010

Tweet! Tweet!

Phil Corbett, the standards editor at the New York Times, has issued a decree: no longer will the word 'tweet' be used in news articles.

For the uninformed, a 'tweet' is a 140-character message published on Twitter, a social-networking site. For those who didn't quite understand all of that, Twitter is a company based in San Francisco that simply asks you the question 'What's happening?' and your answer to that (in 140 characters or less) allows you to connect with friends in small pieces. You can send status-updates on your whereabouts, thoughts, musings, interactions, overheard conversations, whatever you can fit. You can update through mobile phone, computer, instant messaging, email, and a host of other methods. (Which became useful last year when the Iranian government attempted to silence the political protesters; they still managed to keep the world at large updated through Twitter.)

So a tweet is a short message sent across the ether to the internet at large and your friend/followers specifically. Now that everything is squared away, here's what Corbett says about the word:

Some social-media fans may disagree, but outside of ornithological contexts, “tweet” has not yet achieved the status of standard English. And standard English is what we should use in news articles.

Except for special effect, we try to avoid colloquialisms, neologisms and jargon. And “tweet” — as a noun or a verb, referring to messages on Twitter — is all three. Yet it has appeared 18 times in articles in the past month, in a range of sections.

His alternatives are that people 'use Twitter, post to or on Twitter, write on Twitter, a Twitter message, a Twitter update.' He also suggests that once Twitter is mentioned as the medium of communication, reporters 'should simply use "say" or "write" ' for what is published on the site.

I don't disagree with his assessment. The New York Times is a respected news organization. The use of jargon like 'tweet' is a chink in the armor of their credibility and readability.

Where i disagree is in Corbett's use of the attribution. In journalism, the attribution is the most often seen in the words 'John Doe said'. 'Said' is the go-to attribution in news. Simplicity is strength. No need to put 'I love raising beef,' MacDonald beamed. Not only does it distract from the quote itself, but how does beaming say anything? The only action that took place that resulted in the words 'I love raising beef' was MacDonald saying something. Not gufawing, not laughing, not joking, saying.

There are other words to describe this action (speak, utter, claim...), but all others indicate more beyond the simple transmission of words. To say something is enough. It's the neutral action that helps to keep the reporter neutral.

However, Corbett offers 'say' and 'write' as attributions for tweets. Again, this is where i disagree. I'm certain he put 'say' in there as the old standby. However, nobody says anything on Twitter, and i'm not being philosophical. Twits (people who use twitter) write, text, email, post or publish, they don't say. As much as 'Kutcher said' looks newsie, it would more accurately reflect reality, and be correct use of language to put 'Kutcher wrote.'