Here are a few words about Short Cuts the book:

Our everyday lives are inevitably touched-and immeasurably enriched-by an extraordinary variety of miniature forms of verbal communication, most of them so familiar that we don’t think of them as belonging to an extended family united by their characteristic brevity if we think of them at all: We glance over breakfast at the headlines and “The News in Brief” column before turning to our horoscope or the personals, advice to the lovelorn, or the obits, depending on our age and the kind of newspaper we read. Billboards, posters, and street signs solicit our attention on the way to work while the graffiti on the subway walls all but demand it. Once we’re at work, we go on line to check our e-mail and perhaps our favorite blogs or the cartoons that our local newspaper no longer carries. Moreover, at some point in our lives if not routinely, we are all obliged to sign somebody’s yearbook, put our best foot forward in a résumé or (in response to the time-worn interview challenge) to describe ourselves in a single word. And who hasn’t mentally attempted to compose the perfect epitaph or “famous last words” as a pill to purge melancholy?

To live in what has been characterized both as “the age of information” and, just as aptly, “the era of quickie attention spans” is to plunge daily into a personal universe of abbreviated discourse. Short Cuts is an eclectic tour guide to the geography of that universe. Organized thematically by location (physical-“In the Dictionary”-and figurative-“In the Eye of the Beholder”), Short Cuts examines a cornucopia of minimalist discursive genres as varied as the bank robbery note, the dog tag, the instant message, and the descanso, each in the company of its individual family members.

The specific subject matter attached to the exploration of the genres indigenous to any given location can be quite far-ranging, both in breadth and depth. For example, in its survey of the evolution of long-distance oral-aural communication, “On the Phone” considers such companion forms as the ring tone (originally a musical elaboration of the monotone telephone ring, but nowadays available as digitized speech), the robocall, and the answering machine message (both the kind that the caller hears and the kind that the caller leaves), drilling down in the case of the ring tone past the mechanisms by which ring tones are created and distributed to the antecedents of the ring tone and some of the ways in which bells have been used-and are still used-to communicate messages without words.

Here’s what’s in the book:

  • A Quick Tour of the Park – An introduction to the variety of short forms of communication in their different cultural contexts–their geography-and a road map to the rest of the book.
  • In the Eye of the Beholder: What’s Your Sign? – Icons and their relation to text: Western writing systems, the evolution of ideographic to alphabetic systems, and the return to graphics as a means of communication in such disparate realms as the computer screen and the highway, the cartoon page, the storefront, and the sky.
  • In the Dictionary: The Lexicographers Have Spoken – The notion of “the dictionary” from its Babylonian origins to the Wiktionary and what a dictionary should (and shouldn’t) contain: lemmas and glosses, ghost words, sniglets, and Mountweazels.
  • By the Great Crikes! Oaths Both Sacred and Profane – Oaths (of both the pledge and curse word varieties), curses (of both the hex and swearword varieties), and the relationships among all of the above. Indeterminates (thingamajigs), magic words, prayers and incantations, insults, snappy comebacks, and esprit de l’escalier when words fail you.
  • On or About Your Person: The Talk of the Territories of the Self – Our physical presentation of self says a lot about us, from the logo on our gimme cap to the name of the s.o. tattooed on our ankle. Do you have a driver’s license or a Selective Service card in your wallet? Money in your pocket? A medical alert bracelet around your wrist or your boyfriend’s class ring on a chain around your neck? And what about that substantial extension of self, your car? Does it have a vanity plate or a bumper sticker proclaiming that you heart your German shepherd’s head? Taken together, these text-bearing personal accoutrements tell us a lot about who you are and the world you inhabit.
  • On the Lam: The World of Word Crime – Bank robberies, blackmail, kidnapping, and bomb threats typically involve a note (or notes) composed by the perpetrator and subsequently analyzed by the forensic linguist, while wanted posters, APBs, AMBER alerts, and the reading of the suspect’s Miranda rights all call upon the verbal abilities of various officers of the law. Nor is verbal activity in the world of crime restricted to the professional, as can be seen by a passing glance at the phone pole to which I stapled that flier concerning the whereabouts of my missing iPod (no questions asked). Crime speaks; we listen.
  • In the News: All That’s Fit to Print, and Then Some – Newspapers historically have offered a wealth of interesting material in short format, from the headline to the classified ad. Read all about it.
  • On the Phone: Your Call Is Important 2 Us -Since its contended invention in the second half of the nineteenth century, the telephone has undergone a number of refinements, which have fostered associated innovations in the use of language (some of it wordless) and the etiquette of remote communication. The “telephone voice,” the standard verbal formulae marking the beginning and end of a conversation, the language of the answering machine and phone mail, and the cold-caller’s sales pitch have now been joined by the rituals of instant messaging. It’s for you, bff.
  • In the Mail: From SVBE to SWAK – Between ancient times, when you had to wait for your runner’s hair to grow back over the message you’d written on his shaved head before you could send him off to deliver your personal message, and today, with its instant messaging technology, we have relied on the mail-letters and postcards sent via “snail mail” and, more recently, messages sent electronically via e-mail and Twitter. Letters, of course, come in a number of flavors-Dear John, job application, resignation, reference, crank, Holiday family-news-of-the-past-year-each with its own structure and component parts, as do their more recent electronic progeny, all of which we are here to read.
  • In and Out of Trouble: Warnings, Excuses, and Remedial Work – Avoiding getting into trouble, realizing that you are in trouble, and extricating yourself from trouble are processes that all have short forms of communication associated with them. Warnings, disclaimers, weasel words, and the terms of use agreement (including the prenup) may or may not serve to keep you out of trouble. If not, the parking ticket on your windshield, the summons slipped into your unsuspecting hand, or the error message that flashes on your computer monitor just before the screen goes dark may all elicit the “uh-oh” of recognition (or some other emotive interjection). With a computer error, you may be able to access online help and read a message that explains the source of the problem and, if you’re lucky, what you can do to restore your work. At other times, however, there’s not much to do but offer an apology and vow never to do it again.
  • In the End: Last Words – Famous last words, suicide notes, farewells, and sign-offs-XXX, XOXO, “Hi-ho, Silver, away!”-bring all things to an end. Sometimes the farewell is temporary-see you later-but some, like the obituary notice, are final. These may be followed by prayers, eulogies, funeral home guestbook entries (now increasingly visible on line), and the tombstone epitaph, all by their nature brief.

There’s also a bibliography and an index for those readers who simply can’t bear to put the book down.

Advertisements