The New Slang

Language changes all the time, linguists like to say. What they tend to leave out is how ugly it can be. “Monetization on mobile queries right now is a significant fraction of desktop,” Larry Page of Google recently said at a press conference.

It’s interesting to me how many parts of this statement, which was presented as a summary quote on the front page of the business section in the New York Times two weeks ago, could not have been uttered 10 or 15 years ago. It’s also interesting that I had to read the sentence about a dozen times in order to merely approach what I take to be its basic meaning: Google is making much less money on mobile ads than it does on desktop ads.

I am a native English speaker; I read and write for a living; I should not have much trouble with a pull quote in a newspaper article. But what with that fancy subject-noun “monetization,” the unstated topic of ad revenue, the fractional business, and the aborted parallel between mobile and desktop, I may as well have been reading Finnish.

Yet we hesitate to acknowledge how much language is shaped and reshaped not only by changing times but by the spoken habits of specialists and others who are in the know.

 I just wrote a history of America’s greatest language controversy called The Story of Ain’t. It’s about the furor in 1961 over Webster’s Third, the so-called permissive dictionary, and at least three principles at the heart of this controversy may be relevant to Larry Page’s statement. They were quoted in a classic essay by Dwight Macdonald in which he mercilessly mocked Webster’s Third and compared it to the end of civilization.

The three principles (taken from a set of five) are: Language changes constantly; spoken language is the language; and all usage is relative.

What say you? Do they seem true?