A study of new slang terms entering English finds that technology is driving and perpetuating them.
For instance, “404” – the error message given when a browser cannot find a webpage – has come to mean “clueless”.
Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green says that some such terms and abbreviations come about because of the limited speed and space afforded by text messaging.
However, an Australian study found that reading “textese” takes more time and results in more mistakes.
A study conducted by the telecommunications arm of the Post Office has searched out the terms that are not yet in wide use but may be soon.
“What we’re seeing is the influence of technology coupled with current events and, inevitably of the young, who in many cases drive language,” says Mr Green.
“It’s focused on this world of mobile phones – these abbreviations are perfectly suited to those little screens.”
/> And the very act of text messaging can throw up new terms: predictive text tends to choose “book” when users type the letters for “cool”. Solution? Book now means cool.
Of the more unlikely slang sources identified in the Post Office research is the Oyster system, a card-based payment scheme on the London Underground. The card readers show the number 35 if the card has run out of credit. As a result, “Code 35” has come to mean penniless.
Similarly, if you’re behind the times, you might be “Code 11” – Oyster’s way of signifying an out-of-date card.
While these might seem London-centric, Mr Green says that slang is inherently an urban phenomenon, and London has ruled the invention and propagation of slang since as far back as the 16th Century.
Other terms from the study are of a more topical bent; the economic downturn has given rise to “GOOD job” – an acronym for Get Out Of Debt, the kind of job that many of the cash-strapped formerly employed may be on the lookout for.
Other examples are simple abbreviations, the technologically driven equivalents of FYI or TBC. Such consonant-heavy shortcuts are well-documented, but new examples are creeping in. “I love you” can take the shortened form of 143 – for the number of letters in each word.
Such labour-saving is nothing new; as another fairly fiddly mode of communication, the telegraph had its own rich collection of abbreviations. But the sheer number of mobile users compared to the number of telegraphers in their heyday means that these abbreviations and terms will spread further and last longer.
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According to a study by psychologist Nenagh Kemp at the University of Tasmania, however, such shortcuts benefit only the sender, not the recipient.
A group of 55 students was asked to send and read out text messages either in standard English or its vowel-impoverished cousin “textese”.
While writing in textese was significantly faster across the board, nearly half the students took twice as long to read messages aloud as compared to standard English versions.
Contrary to the idea that shortenings and deliberate misspellings are dulling our language skills, Dr Kemp argues that expertise with phonetics and grammar is directly tied to the ability to decipher messages in textese.
The development of this technologically savvy (or lazy) branch of language is a natural part of our language’s evolution, argues Mr Green.
“It’s just another form of the Queen’s English – not better, not worse,” he says.