Benjamin Dreyer: Why English Is Changing So Fast

From a Washington Post column by Benjamin Dreyer headlined “Why English is changing faster than you can say E-mail, e-mail, email”:

Benjamin Dreyer is Random House’s executive managing editor and copy chief and the author of “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.”

The Washington Post’s stylemeisters a few months ago quietly restyled the name of what is bringing you these words, from the “Internet” to the “internet.” I hope my hosts here will forgive me, but the switch, made long after many other publications had gone lowercase, put me in mind of Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese intelligence officer who, disbelieving that World War II had wrapped up in 1945, continued to stalk the Philippines for another 29 years before, finally, facing and accepting reality and surrendering.

Word style folk do tend to lean toward the Onoda-ish: mistrustful of change, never quite wanting, in the face of orthographic evolution, to be the last one to lay down their arms but certainly never wanting to be the first, either.

When I started in the word business in the early 1990s, language seemed to me to be progressing at a reasonably measured pace. Utter nerds that we copy editorial types tend to be, we anticipated with great excitement in 1993 the 10th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary — the book-publishing industry’s lexicon of choice, by oddly unspoken consensus. When fresh copies arrived, we riffled the pages to see whether certain changes had been made. Would “light bulb,” as it was in the 1983 ninth edition, acknowledge modern life and become “light-bulb”? It had!

Another decade passed before the arrival of the dictionary’s 11th edition, and with it, at long last, “lightbulb.” That edition, occasionally published with updates, remains the most recent version printed as a hardback book — there has been no 12th. I still keep my copy handy, but am far more likely these days to look things up at merriam-webster.com.

Which brings us to the emergence of the Internet/internet. Or was it the World Wide Web? Like a lot of people, I could never quite remember the difference between the Web and the Net. (The Post’s stylebook now prefers “the web,” and discourages using “the net” at all, because that “hasn’t been a fashionable term since the Sandra Bullock movie of the same name came out.”)

The World Wide Web’s arrival instigated an era, for language, of a World Wild West. Suddenly it seemed as if we in the trenches were left on our own to observe language changes and try to guide them as well as we could.

I still recall the first time — it was 1995 — one of my publishing house’s authors, beneath the back-flap biographical text of his latest book, invited readers to contact him at an AOL address. I recall thinking at the time, Ludditeishly: I suppose that’ll be interesting to the five people who have any idea what an AOL address is. Because who even knew about E-mail?

Yes, E-mail.

With American English’s egalitarian penchant for turning capitalized proper nouns into lowercased generic nouns, in due course E-mail became e-mail. And soon enough arrived the inevitable push to yank that hyphen. Some people — I was among them — strenuously resisted “email.” The chief and not unreasonable objection: It looked like it should be pronounced eh-mail. (Lord knows, much of what arrives in my inbox these days might accurately be described as eh-mail.)

I will confess: I recall explaining my reluctance to dehyphenate “e-mail” to a young man of my acquaintance with whom I was smitten. He found the word gobbledygook I did all day at least passably interesting, and heard me out on this topic. Then, wrinkling his nose, he commented, not unkindly, “The hyphen makes you look … old.”

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

The journey from E-mail to e-mail 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 many authors’ fury — in favor, primly, of “photocopying.” The proscription against verbifying proper nouns, to say nothing of lowercasing them, was finally and irrevocably crushed under the inarguable fact that we all spend too much of our lives googling things. Not, God forbid, Google-ing them.

These days, I find, language seeks its own pace. Coinages pop up, introduce themselves and restyle themselves as they see fit. And online dictionaries do their impressively nimble best to keep up, as we all do. A few years ago, a lexicographer friend reminded me that the dictionary doesn’t dictate language but reflects it, and that if the people inventing and writing and guiding the language didn’t do their jobs properly — pushing and dragging things forward as we see fit — then the dictionary can’t do its job.

As to the genericized “internet,” I confess again: I was a holdout, for longer perhaps than most (but not The Post), perhaps out of respect, perhaps out of a kind of shiversome awe. I viewed the Internet as a thing: as real as Duluth, if not realer. But ultimately, I capitulated. After all, one wouldn’t want to look … old.

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