Alice Jones: We don't erode language when we abbreviate it. We enrich it. IMHO


LOL. Is there anything better than grown-ups mangling youth-speak?

Politicians wearing baseball caps comes close, I suppose, but that's a rarer pleasure in these days of spin and image advisers. Anyway, Radio 4 had a go at being the voice of yoot this week when Evan Davis inexplicably signed off a report with LOL, adding donnishly "that means lots of laughs". Oh, Evan! So near, yet so far. At least it made listeners laugh out loud.

I'm a magpie for well-crafted abbreviations, hurtling to whenever I come across one I don't understand. So I was delighted to learn, in a follow-up item on the Today programme, that the first recorded instance of OMG was in a letter in 1917. The Oxford English Dictionary's website further reveals that FYI first emerged in memos in the 1940s, while LOL appeared in the 1960s, meaning Little Old Lady.

While the language police may mutter about hasty modern vernacular and the inelegant style of fired-off emails, it seems we've been on the lookout for linguistic shortcuts for quite some time. Moreover, as Davis demonstrated on Today, abbreviations such as WTF can offer a neat and discreet way of swearing without uttering the angry word itself.

Ralph Fiennes still doesn't approve, however. The actor, whose latest film is a 21st-century, cut-down version of Coriolanus, has blasted Twitter for eroding the language of the Bard. "Our expressiveness and our ease with some words is being diluted so that the sentence with more than one clause is a problem for us, and the word of more than two syllables is a problem for us," he said. "We're living in a time when our ears are attuned to a flattened and truncated sense of our English language".

That may be so. But everyday speech and literary language are two very different animals. Which is why we don't all speak like a Martin Amis novel – thank goodness. Shakespeare would surely agree that language is a living, ever-evolving thing. Whether he was a low-born buffoon or an earl in disguise (and really, does anybody care?), he would have relished these expressive little sets of initials. I can see him now, sitting in on rehearsals at the Globe, scrawling LMAO in the margin next to Puck's speeches, perhaps even a tentative WTF? next to the gravediggers' scene.