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Should we be licensed to write or speak?


About John

Copywriter / advertising person, Perth. Curator of largely irrelevant data. Purveyor of unsorted thoughts. Poor surfer. Worse fisherman.


Donald Trump's communications team has got me thinking: should we be licensed to use words?

Should we be licensed to use words? What if you were allocated a fixed number of words that you could use during a fixed time, after which they were no longer available to you? Would you be more careful how they would be used?

Would you be more careful with your words if you were given a fixed number to use? Pic: iStock.

Would you be more careful with your words if you were given a fixed number to use? Pic: iStock

Listening to new US President Donald Trump’s press secretary and, later, his communications manager, dispute reports about the number of people attending his inauguration prompted me to write this.

The press secretary accused the traditional media of attempting to "delegitimise" Trump’s presidency. I thought this sounded very odd. We already have ‘illegitimate’ in our lexicon. The correct phraseology might have been that the press was ‘attempting to caste Trump’s presidency as illegitimate.’

Why do we seek to invent new words?

I understand that language is dynamic. Of the million or so words forming English, I believe some 200,000 have either changed, become redundant or been replaced since the time of Shakespeare. Apparently, all languages - from Hindi to French - undergo this metamorphis.

Later, I heard another Trump spokesperson, speaking on the same issue, attempt to argue that the facts being used by the media should be replaced by ‘truer’ facts. My understanding is that facts are immutable. Facts are facts. Of course, some argue facts can be qualified as in, ‘the facts could be x or y.’ However, the argument is futile. They cannot be facts if they may be altered.

Not related to Trump is the increasing use of numerals into the way English is written. ‘Appreciate’ can now include numerals as in ‘appreci8.’ Being two characters less than the correct spelling is the result of digital communication technology where the number of characters in a given sentence is limited. Computer-mediated communication is slowly and surely replacing traditional spelling.

New words like ‘email’ and ‘blog’ are being used as both a noun and as a verb. It is common to hear words like ‘google’ being used as verb rather than ‘search.’ Symbols such as ‘emoticons’ are being increasingly used to deliver meaning that previously required an explanation and demanded several words. ‘Microsite’ and ‘podcasting’ are relatively new to our language inventory.

Some words have been hijacked. Homosexuals apparently own ‘gay.’ Its traditional use is hardly heard these days. ‘High’ and ‘joint’ were long ago commandeered by the drug subculture. ‘Spam’ was once a poor quality form of tinned meat before it became unsolicited junk email.

Terms and meanings change. Is ‘reaching out’ going to replace ‘meeting’ irrevocably? Or is it merely a temporary fad? Where once a ‘cookie’ was an American substitute for a ‘biscuit,’ it is now small text file on a computer used for identification purposes.

What would happen if there was a limit to not only the number of words you could use, but how they could be deployed?

Let’s not begin on the use of acronyms as words. We’ll also stay away from the use or misuse of contemporary punctuation, for now.

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