Wednesday, April 13, 2011

I Left My Heart at the New York Times

According to Dennis Baron, the Oxford English Dictionary has updated "the definition of the verb to heart to reflect a new sense referring to 'the symbol of a heart to denote the verb "love."'"

Not too surprisingly, the New York Times got the story wrong. Baron quotes an editorial that claimed, "Last month, OMG and LOL were inducted into the Oxford English Dictionary, along with the heart symbol". It wasn't "the heart symbol" that the OED included, but the use of the word itself to mean "love." (I hadn't realized that "heart" was already a verb, if an archaic one. According my tenth-edition Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, it used to mean "hearten" or "to fix in the heart." Fancy that.)

But that wasn't all the Times got wrong. OMG isn't a new Internet or cell-phone "corruption and evolution of the English language." The OED, Baron says, traces OMG back to 1917, though it didn't become widely used until the 1990s.

I love -- or "heart" -- stuff like this. I'm a recovering grammar obsessive, which means that although I often encounter uses of English that annoy me, I don't take them as evidence of the morbidity or corruption of the language. When someone complains about the conventions of phone texting, I remind them of the abbreviations that were normal in educated writing of (for example) the 18th century. "Yr Hmbl & Obdt Svt" is one of my favorites. I wonder if the typewriter lessened the need for such abbreviations. For a competent touch typist it doesn't take a lot more effort to write a complete word than an abbreviation; for someone using a quill pen, the less effort expended the better. In my handwritten notebooks I often use & for "and," and shorten "could" to "cd", "with" to "w", and so on; when I transcribe them on the computer, I fill the abbreviations out.

And now that I have a cell phone, I've become a lot more sympathetic to the abbreviations that people use in text messages, though I still resist using them most of the time. It's tiresome to cycle through the letters on a phone pad, but I'm neurotic enough to do it anyway. Usually. That may change if I start doing more texting, though I might revert to full words if I upgrade to a phone with a QWERTY keyboard.

I've also noticed that my younger Mexican friends, who frequently post to Facebook from their phones, abbreviate their Spanish: "k" for "que", "kiero" for "quiero," "xk" for "porque", and so on. It stretches my mind to figure them out. I also get to see that even native speakers of Spanish have trouble spelling it, confusing "b" and "v" for example. Again, it helps my comprehension to figure these things out.

I sympathize with my fellow grammar obsessives, but there are things in the world that matter more than "U" being written for "you", "4" being used instead of "for." Or even the confusion of "they're," "their," and "there", which came up in my feed on Facebook the other day.