Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Skype me or I'll ping you! No pun intended.

It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, "A 60-year-old man walks into a conference room, sits down, listens to the first minute of a business meeting and realizes that he doesn't have any idea about what was just said." As it happens, the real-life man who had to suffer through this situation a couple of weeks ago, is witty and a quick-study. "For a second, he said, I thought you were speaking another language and then I remembered, Oh yeah, I have been retired for a year. You guys have had time to re-invent the English language!"

As I was told this story, I couldn't help but ask what was that crazy English sentence he didn't get. As it turns out the sentence was "Did you bring a deck for our counter-parties? I pinged you about it. We need a deck that'll show them they have skin in the game." After some explanations, the translation of this sentence into 2009 English (from 2010 English) is "Did you bring a powerpoint presentation for our potential clients? I sent you a message about this issue. We need to show them that working with us is in their interest."

How can a language as old as English evolve so dramatically in such a short period of time? I have been both baffled and amused by this topic in the past few years. Perhaps I am particularly sensitive to it because I have a background in linguistics ; perhaps it is because English is still a foreign language to me. I look at other people's linguistic choices the way I would look at fish in their bowl. I enjoy mentally tearing apart political, social and religious discourse:

-Funny this group would call themselves "pro-life" rather than "anti-abortion." I guess it is a way to imply their choice is a positive rather a negative one?

-Interesting that people who do not believe in evolution would rather call themselves "creation scientists" than "creationists." Do they feel that the word "scientist" legitimizes their beliefs?

-Do "intelligent design" supporters imply that anyone who doesn't believe in it is dumb?

-Why do most "single children" refer to themselves as "only children"? but other people refer to them as "single children"?

-Why is everyone suddenly adding the French word "boutique" in front of every new business they are starting? What does a "boutique venture-capital firm" really mean? or a "boutique hotel" or -my favourite to this day- a "boutique undergraduate program"? How would you feel about me switching "boutique" for "mom n' pop"?

-When is "Summer" a verb rather than a noun? When you "summer in the Hamptons"! Noone "summers in the Catskills" ; they "spend time in the Catskills during the summer" -as I do.

-How would Aimé Césaire feel about being called an "Afro-Martinican author" on his English language wikipedia page? He, the father of "négritude"! What about the fact that is French wiki page doesn't even mention his ethnic origins, but rather that he was "français de Martinique" ? He, the anti-colonialist! Monsieur Césaire, I wish you were still with us and that we could talk about the issue.

Lately, I have caught myself following the annoying trend of what I call "web-based etymology". Last week, to my own amazement I said: "I wonder what is happening to this neighborhood, real estate-wise. I guess I can just zillow it!" As soon as I pronounced the words and heard my own voice, I cringed. I "i-m" people, "skype" my friends on a regular basis, "google map" every new target location before leaving home, spend way too much time "facebooking" and "blogging". And no, I don't only DO those things, I SAY those things as well. Forgives me Noah Webster, it has been months since I have uttered proper English sentences.

Ultimately, I like to think that the natural selection of language will drop the useless lexicon and let the fittest survive. There must be an "app" for that!

As for the 60-year-old man -my father-in-law-, he now pings people and prepares decks for his counter-parties. He has skin in the game, and looks forward to what next year will bring.


Matthew Putman said...

I once saw a "Twilight Zone" episode like this. A man wakes up, and everyone is speaking English, but all of the words are out of context. He needs to learn the new English from children’s books. This is a real nightmare. Still, there is something familiar about it to me, as I am trying to work with scientists in all different fields. Words take on different meanings. A vector in physics is not the same as a vector in biology. I guess there is something positive to this. It keeps us thinking about the meaning of what has been said, rather than just letting it pass us by.

Richard Robertson said...

Business jargon is the worst. There are times when I am listening to a speaker or reading something online where I have to stop and translate everything they're saying into English. I guess it makes them feel more current and somehow smarter. But they're not terribly good communicators when I'm so busy trying to decipher their speech rather than understand it. Sort of like the words "utilize" and "use." I'm always suspicious of anyone who says utilize. The two words have the exact same meaning. If you really want to communicate, be clear and concise. You don't have to dumb down, but there's no reason to needlessly try to "smart up."

Laetiita said...

i am having the same thoughts every day!

I catch myself "googling someone" and wonder whether i should UPS this document or regular mail it?
The problem is when you conjugate those "verbs":

Don't be upset! I upsed you my check yesterday!

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