Oxford, £12.99 Order for £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Short Cuts, By Alexander Humez, Nicholas Humez and Rob Flynn
Minimalist messages say so much
Tuesday 28 September 2010
My short review of Short Cuts would read "Grt idea bt shd try harder. LOL." Or possibly, "GIBSTH." This book gives the impression that the three authors were short of time, so threw their notes at each other and went home. The general reader is liable to be baffled by an early paragraph confronting us with "disambiguation", "semantic mini-domains" and "pictoral polysemy". From a book purporting to be about "minimalist communication", that is a bit rich.
Fortunately for Alexander and Nicholas Humez, who are brothers, and Rob Flynn, they made pretty interesting notes. They select intriguing instances of linguistic short cuts. Cartoons, for example, have their own vocabulary of symbols: "squeans" are those empty asterisks hovering over a drunk's head, while the crosses over the eyes of someone knocked out are known in the trade as "crottles".
Small ads, too, are minimalist, particularly in the dating section: "GSOH" and "NS". Newspaper headlines are another example of compression. However brief the story, they squeeze it more, with "Dead!" a hard splash to beat. Sometimes they add an accidental ambiguity, as in "Panda Lectures This Week at National Zoo". Clever bear.
A bank robber does not have time, or spelling skills, to mess about with fancy phrases; he shows the teller a terse message like "Give me the mony, bicth [sic]." Nor do ransom notes go in for flowery language, particularly if the kidnapper (or catnapper) is sticking letters snipped from a newspaper to state "wE have fLuffy."
Similarly, words carved out of stone must be to the point, so epitaphs tend to be brief. Spike Milligan was one of several whose gravestone proclaims "I told you I was ill." But even those words seem like a three-decker novel compared with the farewell to Norma Jeane: "Marilyn Monroe 1926-1962."
Suicide notes are not overlong. "I hope this is what you wanted" stuck to one dead body said it all. Obituaries, however, do not count as short cuts. Space wasted by these authors should have gone on Twitter and texting, major phenomena, which receive only a page each.
Waffling is easy. Brevity is tricky, a fact confirmed by the excuse of the journalist who filed too many words: "I didn't have time to write short."
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