Planet Word, a museum dedicated to speech and language, opens in Washington, D.C., next May. “Visitors can learn how to create marketing campaigns, recite famous speeches, and can also hear spoken word poetry and hear authors read excerpts from popular books,” according to the press release. A variety of classes, “from songwriting to sign language,” and 31 “language ambassadors” will be on hand to “encourage people to learn the history of language and encourage understanding others.” Reading this flashed me back to library school where my favorite class was the history of books and writing, which required a major paper based on any one sentence from Harold Innis’ monumental 1950 work, “Empire & Communications.”
Innis was a Canadian professor of political economy, a leading postwar thinker, and among the first to recognize the powerful influence technology exerts over culture. “Empire & Communications” traced the development of communications from the earliest days of Mesopotamian cuneiform writing and illuminated how every technological advance in human communications allows governments and businesses to control ever-larger areas. For instance, papyrus scrolls were less bulky, contained more information, and were lighter to transport than the preceding bulky clay tablets. This enabled faster and more thorough communications to and from outlying regions, thereby making possible the administering of ever-larger areas.
Innis died in 1952 fearing that the communications advances he’d witnessed in the first half of the twentieth century— including inexpensive printing, motion pictures, radio, and television — would soon overwhelm our culture before balance could be restored by organizing colleges dedicated to oral communications, teaching logic, folklore rhetoric, mnemonics and so on. It was one of Innis’ many ideas that inspired students, including Marshall McLuhan (“the medium is the message”) to further his research. The warping of elections around the world through misuse of the Internet bear out Innis’ worst fears. Russian efforts to destroy the validity of our elections is truly an existential threat to our country, so it’s fitting that “existential” (“Concerned with existence, especially human existence”) is Dictionary.com’s word of the year. Their editors noticed big spikes in the word’s usage after speeches by Bernie Sanders and Greta Thunburg about the climate crisis. Catastrophic climate changes are also an existential threat, so Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year is “climate emergency.”
On the other hand, a recent News Miner article described new words, including “humblebrag” and “OK boomer” that should be forgotten in 2020 and hereafter. Webster’s says humblebragging occurs when one makes “a seemingly modest, self-critical, or casual statement or reference that is meant to draw attention to one’s admirable or impressive qualities or achievements.”
“OK boomer” hasn’t made it into mainstream dictionaries yet, but Wikipedia defines “OK Boomer” as “a catchphrase and internet meme that gained popularity among younger cohorts throughout 2019, used to dismiss or mock attitudes stereotypically attributed to the baby boomer generation. … It is considered by some to be ageist.”
Having reached my dotage in this age of intolerance, “ageism,” the “stereotyping and/or discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of their age,” is an increasingly handy term. Of course ageism’s been around forever, so historically “OK boomer” isn’t far removed from another old English ageist expression popular in Jane Austen’s day: “coffin-dodger.” Hugo Award-winning author Mary Robinette Kowal compiled an online 14,793-word list of terms used by Jane Austen to ensure that her historical Regency romance novels sound accurate, but thankfully coffin-dodger’s missing.
Emily Bronte forewent that aspersion in “Jane Eyre,” but the Planet Word Museum’s library will need abundant shelving since “Eyre’s” been translated 593 times in 57 languages, including 29 times in Iran since 1980. The “Jane Eyre” title has also been recast in different tongues so that in Japanese the book’s known as “An Ideal Lady,” in Italian it’s “The Shut Door,” and in Turkish “Happiness Comes After Many Years.”
What we say matters for better or worse, and what goes around comes around. As Innis wrote in “Empire & Communications”: “‘It is written but I say unto you’ is a powerful directive to Western civilization.” And as McLuhan added, “ ‘Diaper’ backward is ‘repaid’. Think about it.”
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.