It was late on a school night and my den was alive with the frenetic keyboard tapping of what sounded like a court reporter convention. My daughter was happily instant-messaging her friends. Curiosity got the better of me as I surreptitiously entered the den and glanced over her shoulder. She faced a screen jammed with scores of instant messaging boxes – launching and responding into what seemed a huge cyber gaggle of teens. The screen was awash in acronyms – “BRB, CSL, TTYL, BFF, PO, CD9, TMB and EG.” Umberto Eco or Dan Brown would have a field day with these cryptic symbols and hieroglyphics. The IMs kept flying; given my fascination and bad eyesight, I drew closer to the screen – an ancient moth drawn to an adolescent light. The floorboard creaked as I tiptoed, and my daughter simply typed in three letters: “POS.” The screen went dead.
“Hi, Dad, what’s up?” she said, without turning her back. Being in the managed care industry, I was naively intrigued that she would be discussing Point of Service (POS) medical plans with her friends. Perhaps she had been listening to my conversations all these years. Could it be she was espousing the virtues of an open access healthcare plan instead of a closed panel HMO or PPO? “Oh hey, hon. How’s it goin’?” I queried nonchalantly as I picked up a paper I did not need and studied it, walking slowly toward the front hallway. As I passed through the doorway into the foyer, the typing resumed at a chaotic clip. I later learned that those three letters stood for “Parent Over Shoulder.
I have become intrigued by the IM and text messaging culture, its secret codes and attention to brevity. As a writer, and recovering verbal incontinent, I am fascinated by this generation’s embrace of acronyms as a social communication tool. To experiment, I’ve attempted to incorporate this into my daily work and home communications. My hypothesis? If I could get everyone to use acronyms and incomplete sentences, perhaps we could save valuable lines of text, computer storage capacity and time. This “savings” multiplied across a town or a 40,000-person organization could mean millions in productivity gains as well as improved loss control for carpal tunnel syndrome – and even reduced litigation from less decipherable and protracted emails.
At work, the beta test backfired. I was delighted to receive acronym laden messages, but I had no idea what they meant. I was not deterred. I decided to develop a series of codes for my fellow baseball coaches in Cal Ripken Baseball:
NKNP – Nice kid, nuisance parents
GANB – Great arm, no bat
DG – Daisy gazer
GPPSK – Great player, possible serial killer
OTCTC – Other team’s coach too competitive
NAPFPP – No arm, (but has) pool for post-season party
GCRC – Good carpool route candidate
The permutations were endless. My fellow coaches initially thought I was misspelling my emails and text messages, so they spell checked my missives, which made things worse. One of my spell checked emails was deciphered to misread that we rob the snack shack at 7:15 pm but arrive one hour early to practice (presumably to rehearse the heist).
I tried and tried to weave these consonants, like strands of random DNA, into new words that might combine into something profound. Half the time, I would forget what each letter stood for and need the Rosetta Stone to decipher my own cryptogram. Was my productivity really improving?
I decided to spelunk deeper into the cavernous world of IM’ing. With the help of the Web, I assembled a starter lexicon for the naïve and uneducated parent to help others get grounded in the language of those who dwell in the place I now referred to as the Kingdom of Acro-numbs. For example, 9 or POS meant parent watching, 99: parent no longer watching, 143 stands for I love you, 404: I haven’t a clue, EG is Evil Grin, LMAO – laughing my arse (if you are a pirate) off, MIRL – meet in real life. This was just a mere sip of the strange, feckless nectar that was fueling the IM and text generation.
“Dad, don’t get so emo!” my daughter exclaimed the other night. When I asked exactly what that was, I was informed that “emo” people are highly emotional and sort of clueless. Yet, after hearing a carpool full of kids talking in slang and acronyms, I was feeling a bit “emo” over the future of the English language. I worry about the limited probability that anyone from the class of 2011 or beyond has any chance of writing a popular novel or winning a literary prize. At best, many of these crypto-communicators might win an honorable mention from the CIA for developing a system of linguistics so obtuse that not even Navajo Wind Talkers could crack their code.
My greatest concern is that these insidious little acronyms are continuing to fall like droplets of acid rain, polluting our spoken and written reservoirs. We are accepting a less complete language. I, for one, will fight the trend and continue to paint my literary canvas with long, tedious strokes – replete with mind numbing fifty cent words – while the next generation will slash, poke and dab its verbal artwork with a palate knife fashioned from acronyms. We shall see whether our increasingly short attention span will yield to this new world of mindless short cuts or whether we will come to our senses, and demand another Faulkner or Buckley to emerge and rescue us from our castrated syntax. It is my hope that the IM culture is a temporary nadir in American communication.
A teenaged girl has entered my den as I write. G2GTOS… (Got To Go, Teen Over Shoulder).