Thursday, December 22, 2011

I'll Try To Be Brief

…but I probably won’t, due to vestiges from a previous incarnation when loquacity was esteemed. Fewer and fewer words are now the fashion. Adverbs are deemed to be (really, very) superfluous and adjectives are regarded as weak props, from saccharine to ponderous.

When did brevity become such a virtue? Are we a lazy people or just in a hurry to get where we’re going so we can think great thoughts? Is this our way of getting back at long-winded rhetoricians; those bloviators in the halls of Congress or men of the cloth intoning everything God has to say?

The 19th century was a time when working-people became literate. Novels were the rage and many authors got paid by the word. It was also an age of pretension and ornamentation. A well-shaped sentence on the page with a preamble and digressions of a dozen commas and semi-colons, was considered a thing of beauty. The elegantly crafted phrase at the dinner table got you re-invited. Henry James could separate the subject from the predicate with as many words as it took a Minimalist to write a short story. Lincoln’s four minute Gettysburg Address was preceded by Edward Everett’s two hours oration.

Then the pendulum swung after the First World War. Limbs were shot off and sentences got clipped. Romanticism was overthrown along with the monarchies of Europe. Jazz was the staccato to accompany urban speech. Concision entered poetry. Literature became stripped of frippery the same way the Bauhaus School brought Modernism to architecture. Hemingway wrote what must be the world’s shortest novel:

Baby shoes for sale; never used.

Badinage at the dinner table no longer insured a return visit. In fact, that word, itself, hasn’t made the final cut in dictionaries for decades. Public oration is barely tolerated. We’ve discovered the power of the under-statement. Monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon pushed aside polysyllabic Latinate.

Get to the point. Spit it out. Twenty-five words or less. Button your lip..

Brevity shortened our perceptual span, or maybe it was just a better fit. The president of the United States is now POTUS and the State of the Union is SOTU. Some linguists believe that language precedes thought. Fewer words limit ideas. A broad vocabulary trains the mind to think in more nuanced ways. The positive side of all this is that greater demands are expected of the reader or watcher to participate.

Ellipsis is fine but have we not taken it too far, moving beyond brevity to bites, texts, tweets, and duh? If we continue in this trajectory we will end in the place from whence we came; shrugs and grunts.

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