Sunday, September 21, 2008

Post #810, in which Safire blows my mind

Safire's On Language this morning is all over the map, from hilariously not getting it to providing a pretty interesting little datum.

On the first count, he tackles leet speak:
A youthy movement is now afoot to secede from the Orthographical Union by changing the spelling of the most common word in the English language from the to teh. It is a signal to pronounce it tay or else teh to rhyme with feh!

This rebellion is not innocent initialese like LOL, “laugh out loud”; it is a form of Internet slang based on mistake-worship. Most of us have had the experience of typing (or keying*) t-h-e and seeing t-e-h appear on the screen. We fix our digital slip; we don’t see it as a message from the soul of the machine, or even as a great new way to intensify that common word by pronouncing it thee rather than thuh.

If you don’t want to save the Union, just spell your reaction “Waht teh lleh.”

Well, not exactly.

On a much more positive and interesting note, he talks about cool, which does retain its "slang-froid on campus" (good one). He gives this quote from Lincoln (February 27, 1860), where he says cool means 'really something':

In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear and mutters through his teeth, ‘Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!’

An interesting quote, but is that actually what (I actually first typed waht am not that into 'mistake worship') Lincoln meant?

I'm not entirely sure, but before looking up the history of the word, I could have read it as basically present-day colloquial English cold (that is, going beyond OED Online's entry for cool that includes "controlled, dispassionate", which goes back to Beowulf!) The fuller context is available here — go to p. 172 — and you'll even see mention of passion and ill temper.

In fact, a whole set of entries in OED sound plausible to me, like these:

  • Of a person, an action, or a person's behaviour: assured and unabashed where diffidence and hesitation would be expected; composedly and deliberately audacious or impudent in making a proposal, demand, or assumption.
  • Exhibiting or demonstrating a lack of warmth of affection; not cordial, unfriendly.
  • Providing no comfort or encouragement; chilling.

The last is listed "obs.", by the way. Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English has an even better fit:

Impertinent, impudent, audacious, esp. if in a calm way; from ca. 1820; coll. till ca. 1880, then S.E. [= Standard English, mr. v]

My sense is that Safire's reading maybe isn't entirely impossible, but it sure doesn't feel obvious or natural.

UPDATE, 11:00 a.m.: Well, leave it to Jan Freeman to beat me to the punch here. She gives the fuller story on Lincoln's use of cool, here. Maybe I need to cancel my sub to the NYT and just starting reading the Boston Globe.

*Anybody out there have an actual difference between to type and to key?


Ollock said...

Very interesting -- and cool.

Of course, IME, most people who use any leetspeak generally use it sparingly. Those who type things almost entirely in leetspeak are usually scolded and ostracized. Of course, I'm saying something here that pretty much all regular Internet forum and blog readers should know already.

As four your question. Hmm ... I think I have a sort of fuzzy distinction. For me type is associated with any kind of typing, while key (in) (which I don't think I really use) is restricted to reproducing a specific sequence, like the activation code on a computer game.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks, Ollock. Right, even when I've tried to play with leet here and elsewhere, it's just a pain to do consistently.

And I can get 'key' for entering a code too, now that you mention it.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Certainly stop reading Safire in favor of reading Freeman!

I know some people who say "key" for computers, but they're rather self-conscious about it. For me, "key" is for coding.

James Crippen said...

For me, key generally refers to telegraphy (only radio-, nowadays). I think I’ve used the phrase “key the following” with reference to Morse code. I could also see using it while operating a Linotype keyboard, perhaps. The latter makes me think that it might be a one-handed activity, as opposed to two-handed typing.

The Ridger, FCD said...

ps - Safire should insist on hwat, hwo (or hwa) etc instead of yielding to those horrible deviations from orthographic purity...

mighty red pen said...

I've always thought the difference between typing and keying is that typing is done on a typewriter and keying is done on a keyboard. But come to think of it, when I was in high school you could take "Typing" and "Keyboarding," both of which were taught on typewriters.

Leonidas said...

I used to say key for everything

Dianna said...

I can't use 'to key' on its own unless it's referring to someone keying a car, or something like that. I do have 'to key (something) in', and while I wouldn't restrict it to code, it certainly carries a connotation of numbers. Like 10-key. Typing is just general typing, whether on a computer keyboard or on a typewriter.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Here's one for you: a guy writes to the Chicago Manual of Style Q&A:

Q. I use Microsoft Word and it has a “reference” feature that does part of the work of endnotes/footnotes for the author. The reference feature uses a smaller font than regular and doesn’t indent the information in the endnote. Should I use the reference feature, or should I do this manually, keyboarding in the information the same way I do the rest of the manuscript?

Keyboading? Keyboarding in???