Tuesday, November 13, 2007

On the slow corruption of the English language

I've been meaning to have a little whinge about this subject for a while, and since I have 10 spare minutes. here it comes. First let me state that I am English by birth and Australian by naturalization. I lived in England until I was nearly 12, when my family emigrated to Australia, so I did part of my education in each country. I've always loved the written word in almost any form, which is why I originally became a librarian. However, the years have passed, I somehow drifted into IT, and now I seem to read more words on computer screens than I do on paper.

The general standard of written English is not improving, it is getting steadily worse, and I do not understand this. Computer are particularly intolerant of errors in both spelling and grammar. Anyone who has ever mistyped a variable name, or made a syntax error in a bit of code will know that this is true, and not likely to change any time soon. I was once called out to a site to diagnose a problem with a Unix system. Some piece of software that the system administration folks were using to automate account creation was refusing to load on this machine, and things had reached the finger pointing stage between the operating system vendor and the application vendor. I poked about for a few minutes, and realized that some fool had edited the /etc/password file and changed a colon (:), the normal field delimiter for that file to a semi-colon (;). The application software was reading the file, and choking on the unexpected character. These things matter to computers.

So if we all work with these machines, strict enforcers of specific rules for spelling and grammar, why is the increasing sloppiness of the written word as we use it to communicate with one another tolerated? Written language matters, people: it is a communications protocol that we use to make sense of one another, and heaven knows that can be hard enough without having to cope with protocol errors.

And don't tell me you use a spell checker! A spell checker is worthless unless it is used intelligently, and by someone who understands their own language well enough to know when the program is wrong. I used to work for a senior manager who had the unfortunate habit of spell checking his written communications, and just accepting whatever the program suggested: this frequently resulted in hilariously nonsensical sentences, and the need for clarifications.

My current pet hate is the confusion that seems to have arisen around the words troll and trawl. Try this: go to Google, and search this phrase "troll through my archives". About 60 hits on this combination, and there are variations on this theme: try "trolling through my archives", for another 77.

Let us get this straight once and for all: if you are hunting through an archive, you are searching. You could say dredging, or hunting or trawling. These are all fine and appropriate words, which convey the sense of sifting through a collection of objects. What you are not doing is trolling. Trolling (which seems to have come down as a corruption from either Middle English or High German) means either to fish with a baited line - which is hardly comparable to a thorough search - or to stroll about. Trawling is a fishing activity, typically involving large nets which collect everything in their path, and the word has acquired the additional meaning of thorough searching.

Unfortunately the word "troll" already has a well established meaning across the Internet - those pathetic souls who derive personal gratification from stirring up flame wars by posting deliberately inflammatory comments online. And since most of the planet has apparently seen Peter Jackson's version of the Lord of the Rings, you would think that most people would have a mental image of a troll that did not include a capacity for patient searching as part of the feature set. This usage of the word "troll" derives from Norse mythology, and refers to something ugly that that lives in a cave, and seems quite apt for the sort of person whose most effective method of gaining personal attention is to annoy strangers.

I realize that all living languages evolve and mutate: one has only to look at the new words that have entered the dictionary in the last few years to understand that (spyware, ringtone, biodiesel - all recent additions). But the very richness and flexibility of the English language can only be maintained if we keep plenty of distinctive words in use. If we manage to collapse "troll" and "trawl", a little bit of colour and vitality drains away.

So let's keep our cave dwellers and our fishing nets separated, shall we?

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