May 2010

All of a sudden, while we weren’t looking, the ringtone jumped the shark.  We should have guessed about the progressive unhippness of the ringtone, not when etiquette mavens worried aloud about public blaring ringtones and the decline of western civilization, but through the Michael Scott character in the hugely popular “The Office”.  What better way to reveal Michael’s out of touch and painfully unrealized social awkwardness than by his use of loud and slightly out of date ringtones.

Five years ago, which trend-wise is a millennium ago, ringtones were the billion dollar a year business that was going to save the declining music industry, which was supposedly fatally wounded by Napster and the general desire to get something for free rather than paying for it. However, in each year since 2008, the decline in sales has been sharp and steady.

What happened?  Do folks no longer want to represent themselves by their own semi-unique ringtone?  Who wouldn’t want to pay one to three dollars for fifteen seconds of music?

First, users have largely figured out how to create their own ringtones from their very own music, and now most carriers don’t block the importation of user-created files.  And users can now express themselves with fancy phone cases or cool mobile phone applications.  So how bad is this decline?  According to Kim Thai April 2010 Fortune magazine online posting, the business will be nonexistent by 2016.

The death of the ringtone also points out another death – the death of the phone call.  Young adults have already rejected the voice mail, and now, increasingly prefer texting to calling.  Frank Dickson, vice president of research at technology analyst group In-Stat is quoted by Thai:

“We’ve become a text-centric society, which takes away from talking, which takes away from ringtones. In the past two years the average number of text messages sent by each U.S. cellphone user has more than doubled, to 584 texts per month from 218 per month. In that same period the average number of calls has decreased almost 15%.”

All that AND ringtones make you seem like you’re stuck in 2005.  One humorous benefactor of this decline has been television and the movies, where the “silent” vibrate mode has now become magically audible to the viewer as a loud repetitious “buzz”.  Now the production company doesn’t have to pay royalties every time a character’s “Funkytown” ringtone blares.

Ringtones’ requiem

You’ve Got Voice Mail, but Do You Care?

Words such as acronym, pseudonym, and toponym that  end in –nym  refer to the name (Aeolian Greek ónyma = Attic ónoma ‘name’) by which something or someone is known: a toponym is the name of a place (tópos ‘place, spot’), a pseudonym is a fake name (pseûdos ‘false(hood)’), and an acronym is something known by its initial letters or syllables (ákros ‘outermost, top’). In 1963, under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Defense, A. F. Brown published Normal and Reverse English Word List, a culling of the headwords from a handful of bulky technical and “general use” dictionaries. (See for the list of dictionaries.) The culled words appear first in alphabetical order and then in reverse alphabetical order—words ending in –a first, then those ending in -b, and so on, from a (the indefinite article) to bruzz (a kind of woodworker’s chisel).

While the Department of Defense’s interest in funding the work was presumably for its use as a tool in cryptographic analysis, others among us treasure especially the reverse word list for wealth of sociolinguistic information that can be teased out of it, the names for which we have names being just one. (The list of words ending in -phobia and the words ending in –man, -woman, -boy, and –girl are perhaps particularly telling.)

 Brown’s original list of –nyms is as follows:


For a more recent (and annotated) list, see

The Trolley’s Smile

It is said that the smile you send out returns to you a thousand fold. What about the picture of a smile? It was perhaps with something like that in mind that Fred R. Barnard, an employee of the Street Railways Advertising Company, published what today might be called an infomercial in the December 8, 1921 edition of the advertising trade magazine Printer’s Ink. The piece was headlined “One Look is Worth a Thousand Words” over a body of text that begins

So said a famous Japanese philosopher, and he was right — nearly everyone likes to “read” pictures.

“Buttersweet is Good to Eat” is a very short phrase but it will sell more goods if presented with an appetizing picture of the product, to many people morning, noon and night, every day in the year, than a thousand word advertisement placed before the same number of people only a limited number of times during the year.

The argument, such as it is, is that an advertisement with a punchy text and an accompanying illustration will be more effective if the public is constantly exposed to it than if the same audience is exposed to the thousand-word ad a limited number of times. (Would a thousand-word unillustrated ad with vast circulation sell more product than a punchier illustrated ad with lower exposure? Barnard’s unillustrated 205-word piece leaves that question unasked and unanswered.) What emerges as the point Barnard really wants to make is that a good way to achieve wide exposure for an ad—any ad, though the more visually arresting the better—is to have it appear as a “car card,” i.e., a poster displayed on the side of the ubiquitous street car, card being used here in the sense that the OED describes as “a large rectangular piece of pasteboard containing an advertisement, or the like, for placing in a window, hanging on a wall, etc.” His closing words reveal the trout in the milk:

We deliver many millions of advertising impressions every day. The cars on our list carry more than 10,000,000,000 passengers a year.

In the March 10, 1927 issue of the same publication, Barnard returned to these themes with a piece touting the value of the car card as an advertising medium and the “value-added” that an illustration can offer. Here, a two-part graphic spans the top of a two-page spread. The leftmost part consists of some Chinese characters labeled “Chinese proverb: One picture is worth ten thousand words” (though a more accurate translation would be “A picture’s meaning is able to convey 10,000—i.e., many many—words,” not quite the same thing, but close enough):

The second image, which is unfortunately broken by the gutter that divides the two pages of the article, shows a little boy delighted by an oversized four-layer cake next to a gigantic can of Royal Baking Powder, the essential ingredient in the cake that Mom, having been rendered insensible by the omnipresent ad’s relentless assault, will compulsively bake for Bobby, the lad in the picture, or for someone like him, as we are informed by the following text:

“Make a Cake for Bobby”

—that’s what this car card said every day to many millions of women. It reminded all mothers every day of a sure way to give a treat to their own children. And hundreds and thousands got an extra thrill with their next cake making because of the happy expression of the boy on the car card.

The moral of this story is that the same influence could not be created even with the same picture in any other advertising medium.

In the magazines, the reminder would not be enough to change the average housewife’s baking habit. In the newspapers, with no color, there would be no appetite appeal. On a twenty-four sheet poster, seen for only a few seconds at a time, the great appeal of the expression on the boy’s face would be lost.

As with his earlier Printer’s Ink article, Barnard steers away from the idea that the imaginative use of graphics in advertising can be an effective way to flog a product and goes off instead to plug his company’s stock in trade—the car card. However, it was not long before the conflation of his two aphorisms into “A picture is worth 1,000 words” was on its way to ever wider acceptance in an increasingly mobile, image-oriented world from which the Street Railways Advertising Company has all but vanished in the rearview mirror.

Viabrevis is a place for us to expand the discussion of short forms of speech featured in Short Cuts: A Guide to Oaths, Ring Tones, Ransom Notes, Famous Last Words, & Other Forms of Minimalist Communication and its companion Facebook page, Viabrevis postings will explore those that  either have gotten short shrift, squeezed by the constraints of format or time, or haven’t been covered at all simply because nobody previously thought to do so. We welcome  comments here or on the Discussions page at