Lamenting Librarians' Linguistic Lapses

By Doran, Kirk | American Libraries, August 1998 | Go to article overview

Lamenting Librarians' Linguistic Lapses


Doran, Kirk, American Libraries


Match the following quotations with their authors: 1. You would be surprised how hard it often        A. Melvil Dewey is to translate an action into thought. 2. it is better not to express what one means      B. Peter Drucker than to express what one does not mean. 3. When I don't make any progress, I have          C. Michel Gorman bumped against the wall of language. 4. The development of technology will leave        D. Clifford Stoll one problem: the infirmity of human nature. 

No matter how you answered, you got them all wrong. Every statement is by Karl Kraus (1874-1936), the Viennese writer and critic who believed the corruption of language was the cause, not a symptom, of society's downfall. Kraus spent his life attacking the press and mass media, the hypocrisy of commercialism, and the deleterious mixture of news and entertainment in journalism. He took his beliefs to an obsessive extreme, vilifying nearly every spoken and written word around him, while agonizing over the placement of a comma in his own works.

He would be even more upset today. Although our linguistic sins may be less than apocalyptic, the abuse of language in librarianship is thriving. Ours is a world where speed, compression, and complexity are fertilized generously, while simplicity, clarity, and truth are left to wither. Our misuse of language as a mere servant of our products and services is the unfortunate result of our adoption of pecuniary marketing models.

Every profession has its jargon; but jargoning is also that adorable developmental stage in toddlers when they mimic all the intonations and musicality of speech in pure gibberish. Spend enough time with them and it starts to make sense. The same phenomenon is proliferating at an alarming rate in the world of library professionals.

The nounification of verbs and verbification of nouns are so pervasive that many are being accepted into dictionaries, while the rest go unnoticed: downsizing, uploading, outsourcing, throughputting. (At least the reverse word order gives them a delicious German flavor.) I often ask users to keep onholding, I'm uplooking and downwriting. I can hardly wait till dumbing down becomes downdumbing.

Acrimony over acronyms

Acronyms are the hallmark of any reputable culture, the government and the military taking the lead. Granted, enough TQM-practicing ALA-MLSes downloading MARC records at TSWs with upgraded CPUs could expedite throughput; but will an OPAC with an HTML GUI HCI answer FAQs ASAP?

Truncation, like acronymization, exacerbates our addictive need for compression and our resulting false sense of urgency and efficiency. People don't even let each other finish sentences; they certainly can't waste time hearing the ends of words. This clipped, rapid-fire style of talking and writing reveals our Pentium envy and naive notion that we can continue to cram more and more information into each others' brains faster and faster. …

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