Reviews | Why English Is Changing Faster Than You Can Say Email, email, email

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Benjamin Dreyer is the executive editor and chief copy officer of Random House and the author of “Dreyer’s English: A Decent Guide to Clarity and Style.”

A few months ago, the Post’s stylemeisters quietly revamped the name of what brings you those words, from “Internet” to “Internet.” I hope my hosts will forgive me, but the change, made long after many other posts have gone lowercase, got me thinking about Hiroo Onodathe Japanese intelligence officer who, not believing World War II had ended in 1945, continued to stalk the Philippines for another 29 years before finally facing and accepting reality and surrendering .

Word-style people (and I’m certainly one of them) tend to lean towards the Onoda-ish: wary of change, never really wanting, in the face of spelling evolution, to be the last to lay down their arms but definitely never wanting to be first either.

When I started in the word business in the early 1990s, language seemed to me to progress at a reasonably measured pace. Real nerds we usually copy editorial types, we anticipated with great excitement in 1993 the 10th edition from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary – the book publishing industry’s lexicon of choice, by a strangely tacit consensus. When new copies arrived, we flipped through the pages to see if any changes had been made. Would “bulb”, as in the ninth edition of 1983, recognize modern life and become “bulb”? This has!

Another decade passed before the arrival of the dictionary 11th edition, and with it, finally, “light bulb”. This edition, sometimes published with updates, remains the most recent version printed in hardback form – there was no twelfth. I always keep my copy handy, but I’m much more likely to watch things these days merriam-webster.com.

Which brings us to the emergence of the Internet/internet. Or was it the World Wide Web? Like many people, I could never remember the difference between the Web and the Net. (The Post’s stylebook now prefers “the web” and discourages using “the net” at all, as it “has not been a fashionable term since the release of Sandra Bullock’s film of the same name”) .

The arrival of the World Wide Web triggered an era, for language, of a World Wild West. Suddenly it seemed like we in the trenches were on our own to watch the changes in language and try to guide them as best we could.

I still remember the first time – it was in 1995 – one of the authors of my publishing house, under the flap of the biographical text of his latest book, invited readers to contact him at an AOL address. I remember thinking at the time, Ludditeishly: I guess this will be interesting for five people who have any idea what an AOL address is. Because who even knew the E-mail?

With American English’s egalitarian penchant for turning uppercase proper nouns into lowercase generic nouns, the email in due course became the email. And soon enough came the inevitable push to remove that hyphen. Some people – I was one of them – vigorously resisted the “e-mails”. The main and not unreasonable objection: it seemed to have to be pronounced eh-mail. (God knows much of what comes into my inbox these days could be accurately described as email.)

I admit it: I remember having explained my reluctance to decipher “e-mail” to a young man of my acquaintance with whom I was in love. He found the word gobbledygook I’ve been doing all day at least passably interesting, and listened to me on it. Then, wrinkling his nose, he commented, not without kindness: “The hyphen makes you look… old.

And that, as they say, was that: farewell, e-mail.

The journey from email to email to email reflected the eternal tension between maintaining standards and encouraging new growth. Once upon a time, the Copy Editorial Guild united against “xeroxing” – to the fury of many authors – in favor, primarily, of “photocopying”. The ban on verbifying proper nouns, let alone lowercase them, has finally and irrevocably been crushed by the indisputable fact that we all spend too much of our lives Googling things. Not, God forbid, googling them.

These days, I find, language seeks its own rhythm. Currencies appear, present themselves and redesign themselves as they see fit. And online dictionaries are doing their best to keep up, as we all do. A few years ago, a lexicographer friend reminded me that the dictionary does not dictate language but reflects it, and that if the people who invent, write and guide language were not doing their job properly – pushing and advancing things as we see fit — then the dictionary cannot do his work.

As for the generic “Internet”, I admit it again: I resisted, perhaps longer than most (but not The Post), perhaps out of respect, perhaps out of a kind of shivering fear. . I viewed the Internet as a thing: as real as Duluth, if not more real. But in the end, I capitulated. After all, you wouldn’t want to look…old.

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