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The way we address one another reveals our cultural and personal attitudes, our self-awareness, our sensitivity to others, even our social standing in relation to that of our interlocutors; for, as sociolinguists remind us, words never exist in isolation. It is also true that language, like all living creatures, is in a constant state of evolution; and most linguistic changes are initiated in the lower echelons of society and flow to the more resistant, less populated upper classes. Along with relaxations in rules of social etiquette that have occurred during the last fifty years, there has been a similar relaxation in what constitutes polite language behavior, especially in regard to forms of address. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, senators, teachers, graduate students, mothers, fathers, grandparents are now addressed as “you guys”; and while this leaves a portion of the population with the curious sensation of having been insulted, the designation seems firmly entrenched in American English.
Almost 150 years ago Henry David Thoreau, no enthusiast of his day’s Information Revolution, expressed his reservations thus:
We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.The key word here is "important." No doubt Maine and Texas contrived to communicate something, and probably to keep the wire busy 24/7, as they did not say in those days. But if the present is any guide to the past, much of the dit-dah traffic was mere busyness, chat, nonsense.
The April issue of The Vocabula Review is due online April 20.
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