Sunday 27 March 2011

Placing initialisms

Every three months the Oxford English Dictionary adds revisions of current definitions, new entries and new subordinate entries to the OED online (which, many people are not aware, can be freely accessed at home using your membership number for your local library).

This quarter’s new entries include, inter alia, the initialisms OMG, LOL, IMHO and BFF that are associated with the new medium of electronic communication and, therefore by extension, children and young adults. Apart from the surprisingly early first use of OMG in a collection of published letters from 1917, the earliest citations are found in the 1990s and most often in Internet Usenet newsgroup discussions.

I am regularly teased for having more prescriptivist tendencies when it comes to the English language but I do very much acknowledge that language does (and must) develop and move forward; however, I feel that the foundations on which the developments are made and occur should not be forgotten and am – admittedly – more defensive in my personal desire to see a living archive of language rather than the more liberal thinkers’ approach of consigning punctuation, spelling and grammar rules to history.

In a world in which boundaries are routinely blurred as a result of people’s use of and reliance on technology, it is not uncommon to see these initialisms appearing in my pupils’ work. Apart from ensuring that I have to keep up to date with examples I was not using on the Internet before many of them were born (a fact that surprises many of my students), the students are, as children and young adults have done for many generations, merely trying to establish their own identity through their sociolect, which is doubtless the reason they bridle if I write ‘LOL!’ in the margin of their books next to something genuinely funny.

I am not against people using these initialisms, but what I do find infuriating is the way in which they have become accepted as a societal norm in any medium. When instant messaging, the written word replaces the spoken: its immediacy can readily mean that capital ‘I’s may be forgotten, paragraph breaks are not used and shortened forms abound. It is a private conversation for personal consumption. The immediacy and length restrictions on a text message mean that shortened forms may be necessary, but they are, again, private exchanges.

E-mails (and the question of whether I should have used a lower case ‘e’ and a hyphen is still to be answered) start blurring the boundaries. They have the immediacy of a text message but today an e-mail often replaces a letter. Is this, therefore, a formal piece of text, or not? The answer, obviously, depends on who the recipient is: the audience.

My frustrations come back to the mantra that we endeavour to instil in English lessons where writing is concerned: whatever the piece of writing, the three things which must always be considered are purpose, audience and form. Writers, be they children or adults, need to be able to distinguish between the situations and media and make their language choices appropriately. However, while people demonstrate an increasing incapability to do so, it is reassuring to know that the OED is still recording usage and helping those still bewildered by BFF.