« The earworms of Christmas | Main | For your good luck »

Everything is always going straight to hell

The other day I seconded Jan Freeman’s dismissal of Ron Rosenbaum’s carrying-on at Slate as the self-appointed “catchphrase executioner” of vogue usages that annoy him.

Now there’s an article at Gizmodo asserting that hashtags, those words or phrases preceded by an octothorpe (#) on Twitter and Facebook, are “ruining the language.” The hashtag, Sam Biddle rants (“rant” is the logo for the article) “is a vulgar crutch, a lazy reach for substance in the personal void—written clipart.”

Well, maybe, but language has a good deal of ruin in it to exhaust. For a more thorough, thoughtful, and intelligent look at the hashtag phenomenon, with a feast of links, I refer you to an article by Mark Liberman at Language Log.

One salient paragraph from the article: “Among vaguely similar cultural developments in the past, I can think of the ‘fad for comical abbreviations that flourished in the late 1830s and 1840s’; the ironic use of stage directions (‘exit, stage left’); the rise of emoticons in the 1980s and 1990s; the use of HTML-ish verbal emoticons or text actions like or . No doubt readers will be able to think of others.”

So just as the tides of language continually fling neologisms and vogue usages onto the beach, so do they generate fads like the hashtag and the emoticon.

Then we get the inevitable lamentations that the language is being ruined and the barbarians are inside the keep. Let me suggest that instead of getting the jim-jams over these phenomena, we could adopt a more discriminating approach.

If you don’t like these novelties, don’t use them. It’s usually fairly easy to avoid the people who do. Lean back and enjoy the glow of your quiet superiority. In time, the novelty will fade as the early adopters go haring off after something fresher. If the novelty does stick, you can then use it yourself without appearing to have changed your position.

Or, like H.L. Mencken in writing The American Language or the Language Log set, you can give the novelties some close examination, hefting them, probing them, trying to understand what purpose they serve and why people make use of them. There is endless fascination in language and the purposes to which people put it.

You can hold your indignation in reserve for the targets that merit it. When Verizon, for example, decides to charge people for paying their bills and call the charge a “convenience fee,” you can unload on the company for meretricious conduct. Or, when the government of the United States shamefully decides to call waterboarding, which previous governments of the United States had called torture and prosecuted as a war crime, an “enhanced interrogation technique,” then you can ram a full charge of indignation into the muzzle and hold a lighted match to the touchhole.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:29 AM | | Comments (4)


I could make a long list of trendy stuff I don't like, hashtags among them. But I agree with you. If you don't like 'em, don't use 'em. I don't.

T. S. Eliot would have used hashtags.

Aside from the postmortem conjecture of many true believers as to where the 'soul' of the recently deceased bête noir/ grand provocateur/ avowed atheist Christopher Hitchens may now reside in that metaphysical expanse of the Great Beyond----- Hades or Heaven---- we do know for a fact that to demonstrate his antipathy toward the use of waterboarding (or as the Bushites euphemistically phrase it, an "enhanced interrogation technique"), he actually voluntarily underwent the waterboarding 'procedure', and lasted a mere few seconds before coming up gasping for air in a state of sheer panic.

After that first-hand experience of terror, his view of waterboarding as forced drowning was solidified, and that this extreme form of trying to elicit covert information from the enemy was truly barbaric, bordering on a crime against humanity.

( Interestingly, till his dying day, Hitchens supported the initial U.S. military invasion of Iraq, and the taking out of the despotic Sadam Hussein. He incurred considerable flack from many of his diehard supporters for his, what many regarded, as his rather counter intuitive, hawkish stance on the Iraq war.)

@Laura Lee, undoubtedly T.S. Elliot would have used hashtags, but would he have used hash(ish)? Somehow I doubt it, particularly after his religious
conversion, or more precisely, his great spiritual awakening. (OK, I'm being silly here. Oh well.)


All CIA members who have had to use 'waterboarding' have themselves endured the process. I don't think they would use something on others that they themselves had not endured. No one has drowned yet. If it had helped prevent 9/11 and the bombing of the London Underground, I think it would have been a small, damp price for the terrorists to have paid. More to the point, what the devil is a "hashtag?"

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected