The 411 on OMG…

By Matter

I recently went on a trip to welcome a baby to the family. The new grandmother, who recently signed up for Facebook, was confused by a comment left by her 30-something year old niece: “OMG! Congrats!” After a bit of explaining and discussion, she added another proud title to her repertoire: fluent text speaker.

ICYMI (In Case You Missed It), social media tools like Facebook, Twitter and texting have developed a language all their own. While acronyms have been around for years, with the introduction of texting and social media speak, we are undoubtedly speaking in groups of capital letters a lot more than we used to. But when is “social media slang” appropriate and when will YBS (You Be Sorry) you went with the shorthand?

In the media, several prominent figures have been caught using a certain three letter phrase that caused a stir. Sarah Palin, for instance, commented on a speech given by President Obama’s in late January stating, “His theme last night was WTF, winning the future. I thought, okay, that acronym – spot on. There were a lot of WTF moments throughout that speech.” While I don’t think the former Governor of Alaska was being very appropriate, if she’d said the actual words, imagine the outburst from angry viewers. WTF seems to have become a tongue-in-cheek way of saying, well, WTF, without being offensive.

Last week, in a guest post on the New York Times blog “Schott’s Vocab,” Robert Lane Greene, a journalist and author of “You Are What You Speak,” wrote: “One thing is clear: language is always changing. But educated people, and especially language pundits, cherish the traditional language they learned in their education. Change must be bad, they reckon, because the language they once learned in school was good. The logic doesn’t work, though; when a good thing changes it can become another good thing. Latin didn’t become grunting and gobbledygook over centuries of change that Cicero decried: it became French, Italian and the other Romance languages.”

In my opinion, he’s correct. But to go as far as to compare phrases like “BTW” (By The Way) to romance languages is a stretch, which Greene acknowledges: “Once upon a time, politicians and other leading figures buttoned up their English in its Sunday best for public occasions. Speeches were an opportunity to show mastery of formal rhetoric. At the turn of the last century, William Jennings Bryan, known as a populist no less, could say ‘The humblest citizen in all the land when clad in the armor of a righteous cause is stronger than all the whole hosts of error that they can bring.’ Try to imagine Sarah Palin complaining about ‘all the hosts of error’ of the Obama administration. We now value spontaneity and authenticity rather than elaboration and polish.  For some, this is decline. For others, it’s just change.”

Personally, I believe that comments like OMG and TTYL should be saved for texting, IMs and, occasionally, Facebook or Twitter and are better left out of other, more formal conversations. What do you think? Have you ever been irritated by what you view as an inappropriate use of text language?