When I was young I wanted a secret language; one that my sister and I, or maybe a handful of friends, could comprehend. We could talk about anything we wanted in this language: school, turtles, our hopes and dreams, and other people we liked or disliked. But mostly I wanted a secret language because it set me apart. I’d be able to speak English just fine to those outside my Secret Language circle, and they would be impressed and awed by my abilities. I’d have something they didn’t have.
I have seen and read Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, Hamlet, more than any other work by the playwright. We are all familiar with the play to some degree or another; or at least heard it quoted: “To be or not to be” might be the most famous line from any play in the English language. After the story of Cinderella, it’s the second most filmed story in the world. I read someplace that Hamlet is being performed somewhere in the world every minute of every day. If you don’t know the plot? Well… Watch Disney’s The Lion King and you’ll get most of the story. Except in Hamlet everybody dies at the end, except for poor Horatio (Hamlet’s best college buddy), who walks onto stage and has his Elizabethan equivalent of a WTF moment.
I took a walk through our neighborhood this morning, past the golf course, and nearly to Alex’s high school. It’s about a mile to get there.
I “discovered” the trail about a week ago, on a perfectly beautiful April evening when I wanted to get out of the house just relax. Discovered is a bit of a misleading term because I could hit Lake Audubon Trail with a pine cone from our bedroom window. I just never bothered. We’ve lived here sixteen months, and I hadn’t yet felt energetic enough,to explore our neighborhood. I’ve been using the CPAP machine for 2 weeks. It took about 7 days before I felt enough energy to get out and enjoy the day.
I was scrolling through Facebook this morning. I saw the usual uninteresting stuff; you know, the types of things with ridiculous titles like “This dog was on the couch and fell asleep: you won’t believe what happens next,” when I ran across a brief mention of the guy who in 1971, sent the first email. His name was Ray Tomlinson, and he died two days ago. He was a member of the Internet Hall of Fame (and yes, there’s apparently an Internet Hall of Fame) because it “brought about a complete revolution, fundamentally changing the way people communicate.” Impressive. And I’d have to agree. Who among us hasn’t got an email? Nobody reading this blog, I’d suspect.
But what fascinated me more was the next sentence of his obituary. It claimed that he “singlehandedly repopularized the at-sign. You know, this:
It’s a good sign. I love punctuation and symbols anyhow, so I immediately had to look up the history of the thing. Wikipedia has a good article on it, so I won’t bore you with the historical details except that it’s been around for at least 600 years. In that time, well, we didn’t use it much. It has a pretty specific meaning and isn’t exactly popular in literature. That is, until Mr. Tomlinson.
I looked it up. I was unable to resist. Google’s ngram viewer records each instance of a word in in their very, very large database of literature and documents. Check it out. Have fun! So did he really repopularize the at sign? Let’s see…
Here’s the graph of Google’s recorded usage of the symbol @ since 1971:
You can click the image to embiggen, by the way. In the space of about 35 years, the the at sign has gone from showing once every 10,000 characters to once every 1,000 characters. That’s pretty impressive, if you give it a bit of thought. In 1971, the word computer was known to science fiction nerds and university eggheads.
In 1971, I was three years old. The moon landing was just 2 years in the past, made possible by brute-force technology and machines-that-go-ping. The game Mastermind was just a board with holes and, to me, plastic bits that looked like M&Ms. Intel created its first microprocessor that year. Richard Nixon was still a pretty good guy, and was Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. Ed Sullivan and The Beverly Hillibillies were cancelled.
Okay, compare to 1981: the year the IBM PC computer was released, and Voyager was taking amazing pictures of Saturn. Some crazy named John Hinkley Jr. tried to kill Ronald Reagan. The Center for Disease Control AIDS, a kind of pneumonia affecting gay men.
After that, well… you know what happened. There was this thing called the Internet. Windows 95 overwhelmed us all. We all joined AOL.com, and then left AOL.com. We said the words “Information Superhighway” way too often, and danced the Macarena. We all got email addresses with little @s in them.
Quick at-sign facts:
- In Renaissance Portugal and Spain it was a unit of measurement: You could buy an @ of wine
- In contemporary Portugal, the @ is an emoticon that means I’m kissing you… with tongue!
- Traditionally, the Dutch call the symbol “apenstaartje“, which means “little monkey tail.” Today, they call the symbol “at,” presumably because it’s easier to pronounce. Germans, Romanians, Poles and Croats follow suit. The Scandinavians generally refer to the symbol as “elephant’s nose”. Russians and their neighbors call it “dog” or “dog tail.” The Hungarians call it a worm or a maggot. The Hebrew language calls it a strudel, presumably because it looks like one.
- A few years ago, a Chinese couple tried to name their son @—pronouncing it “ai ta” or “love him”
Ok. Thanks for indulging my little brain exercise for today. And thank you, at-sign for being there. And thanks, Ray Tomlinson for that email thing you invented! I sent one to somebody just the other day, and never even gave it a second’s thought. Pretty remarkable, when you think about it. 45 years ago, when he was busy inventing email, I was eating crayons and picking boogers. Now I only do one of those things, and afterwards I can send an email about it!
Recently I had to ask a co-worker what “dank” meant, and if it’s a good thing. He had recently described something as dank. I understood from his context that he didn’t mean “cold and musty.”
He laughed, “Where’d you hear that word?”
“You just said it,” I explained. “So, is it good?”
“Yeah, it’s very good,” he told me. “It’s a stoner term you know. Stoners say that things are dank.”
Uh, remember when I just said you used the term?
Oh, yeah, bro. The dankness overwhelmeth me.
The rest of the night, I was sure to be marginally annoying by referring to things as Dank. “These new pastries are very good. In fact, I’d go so far as to describe them as dank. They are supreme in their dankness.”
Stuff being dank doesn’t work when you’re in your forties, kids.
At some point I got old. I don’t know when it happened. I remember when things were radical, awesome, bitchen, tubular, even gnarley (which was both good and bad at one point. Now I think it’s evolved to surfer talk for only bad). I survived copasetic, bodacious and cool. Fab, boss, funky, groovy, tight, The sixties had far out, and outta sight. My opinion: they were worried about not seeing stuff in the sixties, so they used lots of drugs, which led to sex, which led to radical kids (they never were all that radical), which led to to dank grandchildren. Hip (hep), neat (neat-o) and keen (keen-o) were a bit before my time but I may have used them, once in awhile. Aces? Snazzy? My Granny Spurgeon used to say snazzy. So was swell. I make sure to use them all because I don’t want anybody to know how old I am by my language.
I’ve heard killer, “the shit”, “the bomb,” “the shit bomb”. Some good things are actually bad. Michael Jackson tells us he’s “bad, I’m bad… you know it. OOO!” So how do we know anymore? I wouldn’ be surprised if some kid eventually comes up to me and says “That hat is the explosive diarrhea!” and it’s actually a good thing.
By the way–if you say you’re apt to say “killer” or “I’m the bomb,” or “I’m radical,” I’d recommend not using slang if you happen to be going through an airport security line.
How about fly, chill, crunk, sweet, insane, dope, crazy, wicked? Are these words off the hook or what? Oooh! Off the hook. Different than off the rack, which is definitely not off the hook.
I had a professer (Norman Arnesen, if anybody is wondering) use the term “the bee’s knees” in conversation with a totally straight face. Cat’s pajamas anyone? What about the cat’s meow? Killer diller?
Why does it mean one thing if you say “you’re the shit,” and another if you say “you’re shit?” And what about puncutation? If you say “your shit” you need a verb. Stinks comes to mind.
I have also noticed modifiers–all of them are variations on “very”… Hella, hecka, mega, epic, mongo, leet, über, –that’s a good one. We have a dearth of words in English with umlauts. Ever notice, by the way, that the word umlaut doesn’t have an umlaut? I think there should be an ANSI code so I can type an umlaut-N for every time I reference the movie Spinal Tap. Granted, this is the first time, ever, I’ve referenced the movie Spinal Tap.
We also have très, super, ultra, you know… comic book superhero terms. Make you own! Mix and match. Norm Arnesen should have said “That seminar was ‘hella-the bees’ knees’.” Best super hero name ever!
So, I may not be dank, but I know people who are.
Which words do you find yourself using? Are you stuck in a decade?
I just got home from work. Apparently Super Bowl Sunday isn’t the busiest time of year for us. I spent the last two hours walking around, cleaning things, then walking around only to clean them a second time.
Honorificabilitudinatatibus: that’s a nice long Shakespearean word to start your morning. Hope you’ve had your coffee!
Shakespeare used it only once in his entire body of work. To use a word only once in your entire body of work is called a Hapax Legomenon. These are remarkably important words for people (and I admit I am used to be of them) who count and rank words for a living. Continue reading Hapax Legomena