Texting brought in a new style of communication including highly abbreviated language and emoticons. Indeed, the Oxford Dictionary’s word for 2015 was an emoticon.* The older generation is often dismissive of this, calling it ‘not proper English’ and worse. Older people who are less used to modern technology can be perplexed when receiving what looks like a strange code from a young friend or relative.
But using a single letter in the place of a word, which appears frequently in text messages, was popular more than 60 years ago.
1930s – 1950s novels
As a young teenager I read popular YA novels written in the 1950s and remember telling my mother about a typo (see – I started early). In a dialogue, one of the characters said, ‘that’s jolly d of you’. I was astonished when she told me it wasn’t a typo – the d stood for ‘good’, and that was a normal expression. It took a long time for me to accept this, especially as my mother had a tendency to play tricks on me.
Eventually I was introduced to the works of one of the finest writers of the 20th century, P.G. Wodehouse, who wrote many of his novels in the 1930s and 1940s. If you’ve seen Jeeves and Wooster or Blandings on TV, then buy one of the books; the use of language, the wit and pace are fabulous. The original style, punctuation and grammar have been retained in the modern editions and from time to time you will come across a single letter denoting a word. Here’s a few sample quotes from Joy in the Morning:**
‘Out of the q., Jeeves.’ (pg. 13)
‘Did he mention what the b. a. of great d. and i. was?’ (pg. 39)
‘I did not let the g. grow under the feet.’ (pg. 259)
Was this the forerunner of texting language?
Texting and single letter ‘words’
Looking back to the early days of texting, messages were limited to 160 characters and entering even one character might involve pressing several keys. It was difficult on the tiny keyboards at the time, time consuming and often expensive if your providers charged by the character. So single letters that could represent a word such a ‘c’ for ‘see/sea’ developed as a means to convey a message using the fewest characters, in the shortest time possible. And today, that has developed into a language all of its own and endless emoticons, despite the original difficulties no longer existing.
Clearly this was not the background to the particular style adopted by the well-regarded 1930s/1940s novelist; it was the linguistic style of the time, adopted by the class of society portrayed. However, it does show that replacing words with letters is nothing new. Those who look down their nose at the texting phenomenon as a ‘destruction of the English language’ would do well to pick up any P.G.Wodehouse novel and enjoy the sheer beauty and skill of the writing – including the words reduced to one letter.
Rather like a text message.
*Oxford Dictionaries: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2015/11/word-of-the-year-2015-emoji/
**P.G.Wodehouse, Joy in the Morning, first published 1947 by Herbert Jenkins. London: Arrow Books, 2008. Copyright: The Trustees of the Wodehouse Estate.
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