Friday, September 17, 2010

Word Deflation

Some writers have been comparing the length of the health care reform and financial reform bills to the statutes that were passed long ago, such as the Glass-Steagall Act, which were much shorter.  I think they're comparing apples and oranges.  That doesn't mean I favor the trend.

I'll call it word deflation.  It's been going on since the alphabet was created.  Remember the monks who toiled on illuminated manuscripts?  A printed word was worth a fortune in those days.  Only the wealthy owned books.  Then came Gutenberg's printing press.  Years later, when I took my first job after law school, we read typeset galley proofs, word for word.  A year after that, my secretary at First Virginia Banks took dictation with shorthand and used carbon paper and white-out to paint over typing mistakes.  Within 8 years, all of us in the Citi were learning DOS -- before long, WordPerfect, then Word.

With each iteration, a word lost value, to the point where today almost any 10-year old has probably sent more letters (emails) than my grandmother wrote in her entire lifetime.  There's an example.  Thirty years ago, I probably wouldn't have typed "entire lifetime."  The word "lifetime" says the same thing, without risking a mistake and a minute fussing with whiteout.

Yes, I've heard of Twitter.  I applaud Twitter.  It could force us to choose words more carefully. It's an anomaly, or is it?

"Got it," says Virginia.  "What's your point?"

I think it could be interesting to compare today's legislation with yesteryear's.  What do the additional words do?

In a related vein, let's compare regulations written 50 years ago to those written today.  I believe that now there's a tendency to say the same thing several times, in slightly different ways, and to throw in words in an attempt to make perfectly clear what's already clear from the context.  Maybe I'll begin to keep track of the "worst" examples I come across so I can share them with you.

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