When I was first privileged to write this column, I was set a 750-word limit. I knew that I could go a few words over or under, and nobody would care. But I decided to make a game out of turning in exactly 750 words each time. What made this relatively do-able was that, unlike some computer writing programs, mine gave a running word count.
In any case, this was a new verbal world for me, because, for many years, my writings had been limited to a maximum of 17 words. This was an arbitrary self-imposed format, of which I was an acknowledged master, because, for better or worse, nobody else, it appeared, was even interested in trying it.
Strangely enough, modern technology had not only made it much easier to keep count of one’s words, but had also made it much less necessary to do so. Before the advent of the computer and the Internet, the fastest means of written communication had been by telegram (also known as “sending a wire”). But compared with what came next, that was very costly, and the charge was usually calculated by the number of words. In consequence, unless you were very wealthy, your message was not usually written in ordinary language, but in “telegraphese,” saving words as much as possible, while still trying adequately to convey your meaning. There were whole books written on this subject, with ideas like leaving out the word “please,” even though, to people in the early days of the telegraph, that might have seemed impolite.
But more than two centuries earlier, Shakespeare had his character Polonius, in Hamlet, tell us that “Brevity is the soul of wit.” This was ironical, since Polonius was always characteristically verbose.
But a more modern irony concerns email and “texting.” With regular email in general, there is no word limit, and, as the user, your message can be as protracted as you like. After all, you’re not using anybody’s time but your own, and, unless the message gets printed out, you’re not using anybody’s paper, and, unless it has to be stored, you’re not even using anybody’s disk-space. All you’re using are immeasurably small, immeasurably numerous electrons.
But here comes the irony: the sheer pace of modern life demands that we keep doing things faster. (The only two exceptions I know of are: (1) getting older and (2) having sex.) So, for much ordinary communication, email now seems slow, cumbrous, and old-fashioned. The new, preferred method is called “texting.” But texting is usually done on small screens, and often when you are in a hurry – so once again, it is full speed ahead, and damn the electrons. Words can be truncated, condensed, abbreviated, even encoded, to save time and space. I myself don’t do much texting, but even I know that OMG means “Oh My God!” and IMHO means “In MY Humble Opinion,” and LOL means “Laughing Out Loud” (although I can remember when, in pre-computer days, it used to mean “Little Old Lady”).
All this calls to mind some words of the great French thinker Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) who apologized to a correspondent for having written “such a lengthy letter, because I didn’t have time to write a short one.”
It does indeed often take time to write less and say more. I am grateful for the fact that in my London high school we were given exercises in writing what were known by the French term of précis. A précis is a sort of condensation. It can be of any set length, but in my English classes, it was supposed to be a reduction to one-third of the original. Foreshadowing my future career, this was an assignment in which I always did well.
But condensing of various articles, and even of books, to a convenient format for people on the go, was the basis of a magazine called Reader’s Digest, originally published in the U.S. in 1922, which proved so popular that eventually it appeared internationally in various languages, and is still coming out today, ten times a year, in print and online.
None of this is good news for people who savor verbal expression, and are often accused of being long-winded. One contender for this distinction was Fidel Castro, whose speech to the UN General Assembly in 1960 was timed at 4 hours 29 minutes – which scarcely held a candle to his address to the Communist Party Congress in Havana in 1986 – 7 hours 10 minutes!