The Smithy of Words

In school, whenever I read the Times of India I would come across many words that were unintelligible to me. So I would inevitably turn to my coveted bilingual (English to Marathi) dictionary that I had forced my parents to buy for me. But looking up the meaning of every difficult word slowed down my reading pace so much that I eventually gave up using the dictionary. And since then I have always found it cumbersome to search for a word in the big fat tome that a dictionary is. (Pocket dictionaries are generally useless because, to fit your pocket, they contain only the most common words.)

A friend of mine, a part-time teacher, narrated an incident that happened in her tuition class. She was teaching her students how to use a dictionary when a bright young girl asked, “Why search so much through the book? I just go on to the dictionary app on my phone and I get not only the meaning but the audio pronunciation as well.” Well, I can’t agree more with that girl’s pragmatic approach. For lazy bums like me, the dictionary app has been a real boon.

The most renowned and authoritative dictionaries in the world, such as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, are also available as smartphone apps. Since the first monolingual English dictionary was published in 1604 by Robert Cawdrey (containing around 2,500 entries), we have come a long way. But lexicographers have toiled for centuries for dictionaries to reach their current stage. Samuel Johnson—probably one of the two most famous lexicographers in the world (the other being Noah Webster)—took nine years to complete his dictionary, while the work on the OED’s first edition went on for 70 years. (Coincidentally, 15 April 2015 marked the 260th anniversary of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, which was published in 1755 in London.)

Dictionary-making is a dead serious business. New words are added after rigorous vetting, and sources spanning centuries are constantly checked to fix the correct etymology of words old and new. Samuel Johnson had famously defined a lexicographer as “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.”

But when we unshackle the dictionary from its printed pages and put it on the World Wide Web, it has the potential to transform itself magically. Urban Dictionary, a crowd-sourced initiative which started as a fun project in 1999, is the best example. Urban Dictionary is a place where you will often find the quirkiest, funniest and sometimes very offensive definitions of words. That’s because it does not have any lexicographers, editors or any kind of gatekeepers on its staff. Word entries are submitted by the users and vetted by the users. So a neologism which may take years to appear in OED—or may never appear—can find place of pride in Urban Dictionary almost overnight. Consider these few word entries to sample the ingenuity of Urban Dictionary’s users-cum-amateur lexicographers:

  • College: an expensive daycare centre
  • Stupid: someone who has to look up “stupid” in the dictionary because they don’t know what it means
  • Tequila: a Spanish word meaning, “I don’t remember doing that…”

Aaron Peckham, the company’s founder and chief executive, told the Guardian, “Most dictionaries are objective. Urban Dictionary is completely subjective. It’s not presented as fact, (but) as opinions. I think that can be a lot more valuable.” The robustness and the tongue-in-cheek nature of a project like Urban Dictionary is possible only in the internet era.

Though the immediacy, cheekiness and exuberance of Urban Dictionary are exciting traits, they are not desirable in a standard dictionary. But that doesn’t mean standard dictionaries have not been able to “win the internet.” They are present as stand-alone websites, on social media, and in smartphones. The great thing about the Web is that dictionaries do not face space constraints, and updating old entries or adding new ones is very easy. It is possible that OED’s third edition—on which a team of 70 philologists, including lexicographers, etymologists and pronunciation experts, has been working for the past 20 years—may not be printed at all. Nigel Portwood, the chief executive of Oxford University Press, told the Telegraph as much. “The print dictionary market is just disappearing, it is falling away by tens of percent a year,” he said. Asked if he thought the third edition would be printed, he said: “I don’t think so.”

New technology has significantly reduced the time gap between encountering a difficult word and finding its meaning. Many internet-based products and services dealing with words come with pre-installed dictionaries. Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader has a functionality which allows you to tap on a word for a few milliseconds before its dictionary definition appears. Features like this, which have their genesis in the internet age, are making reading a better experience for not just non-native English speakers but native speakers as well.

(Note: This article was first published in the journal Economic and Political Weekly in the issue dated May 16, 2015.)

Reading and the Distractions of Hyperlinked Web

I am an avid reader. But I need a perfect setting, quiet ambience to read. I cannot read if I am famished. I cannot read if there is noise. I avoid reading in a moving bus or train (it’s not good for your eyes). On weekends, I pull the card out of the set top box and hide it somewhere so that no one can switch on the TV at home. So many potential distractions I need to take care of. But guess what: internet is not one of them.

Many people blame the internet for disrupting their reading, including scholars and journalists, whose livelihood depends on the very act. They cite social media and hyperlinks as two main distractions. Sure, the notification bar that sites like Facebook and Twitter have, can act as a constant source of agitation. Facebook’s red balloon demands instant attention, and when there is no new notification, we subconsciously await its appearance, causing mild anxiety and loss of concentration. On the other hand, hyperlinks lure us to go on a clicking frenzy and to hop from one page to another. And sometimes hopping is all we end up doing.

But there is a major difference between distractions such as your family members talking while you are reading and the distractions like social media and hyperlinks. The first is an external distraction, the latter is not. Social media and hyperlinks are psychological distractions; in other words they test your self-control. You can easily avoid these distractions if you train yourself to do so.

Here is what I do. When I open my browser, I first check all my social media feeds. Then I complete other tasks on my list, like mailing ebooks to a friend or paying phone bill or ordering pizza. After all this is done, I get on to the act of reading. Actually it’s social media sites like Facebook and Twitter which most of the times point me to interesting articles. But I keep their tabs closed when I am reading a long article. And while reading on my Kindle, I keep the internet on my mobile phone off. I end up reading a lot more on web than on paper, and as attentively. There is no loss in retention or comprehension, contrary to what the findings of umpteen surveys carried out in the US say.

I am not saying it’s entirely your fault that internet is making you a less efficient reader. But the web is not a newspaper or a book. It is not designed solely for passive reading. So it is grossly unfair to compare paper with screen without understanding their nature. If we understand what causes us to get distracted, it’s much easier to counter it — be it while reading on paper or screen.

Guest Posts Series #3: Texting

This is the third installment of Guest Posts Series. You can read the posts from previous two installments here, here and here. This time I have decided to change the format a bit. Instead of publishing all the posts on the same page, I am going to publish each post separately. Thus the readers will be saved from the trouble of scrolling endlessly as well as each post will get equal prominence.

The topic that I have decided to explore this time is texting. I myself have written about this topic in the past (here and here). From letters to email to now instant messaging, the means to carry written word for interpersonal communication have only got better. The world is on the verge of achieving universal literacy and the adoption of mobile phones has been exponential too. As a result the use of written word for interpersonal communication is at its highest in human history. In this backdrop, three of my friends talk about their fascination (or not) with written word and their flings with texting.

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Texting and Me

“Then, there are people like me who are more comfortable in expressing feelings via written words. Putting them into words is easier when you get time to think, frame correct sentences and when certain situations do demand an impersonal touch.” Janhavi Kulkarni writes…

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Digitally Yours

“Texting as a communication facility has been kind to the human race, but it has taken away more than it has given. Texting has brought me closer to people whom I don’t see every day and made me indifferent to people who are around me. Ironic much?” Apoorva Nanjangud writes…

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Why I Started to Text and Other Stories

“Texting is not just a convenient way of conversing with people, it’s also the simplest and the most manipulative. I can choose how much I have to reveal over a text – a convenience not available while holding a face to face chat. I can lie through my teeth and the person I am having the conversation would have no clue. Conversely, I can form a deep bond and talk about my deepest secrets and bare my heart to a person while I text, knowing perfectly well that they can’t see my face turn a perfect shade of beetroot red or that I am anxious for a reply.” Utkarsha Kotian writes…

Digitally Yours

Guest Post by Apoorva Nanjangud

Apoorva“…So see you soon, yep, yeah…whatsapp me”. I am not very sure about how it has been with others but most of my conversations of late end like this. We, the generation of today, have been parting ways on a note to get back virtually, possibly the very next minute. Knowing that you’ll find those people at a touch of a button, at any time of the day, in still and moving images, text and voice, has led us to believe that the virtual world is an alternate reality. Even though texting has reduced spatial distance to zero, it has also led to the non-existence of quality verbal-interpersonal communication. I have always had technology at my fingertips, and even before I realized how indispensable it was to my existence, I was already a slave to it. When today — much mature in the head — I weigh down the usefulness of texting, I realize that much of it was unnecessary. Even if it facilitated productive conversations, they were comparatively non-existent.

It all began with a mobile phone that I received as a present when I was 16. I remember paying a hefty price of one rupee per text at that time. Texting caught on soon as my friend circle grew and then you didn’t use the humble SMS to just shoot a “Will be home soon, don’t worry mom”: it became more about the “So wassup?”s and the “So what else”s.

The SMS packs ensured affordability. Thirty five bucks and you were sorted for quite some time: 350 “nonchalant times” to be precise. I remember frantically dialing a certain code to check the number of SMSes left to be utilized and trying to fit as much text as possible in one SMS. And yes! Re-reading those messages was fun too. I cannot be blamed for being so much in awe of the whole idea: it was an interesting and a different world that slowly grew on me. The naive joy that anticipation of a text was, was something else. It sure connected people on a level that talking one-on-one did not.

The more modern rendition of SMS is the real-time texting aka instant-messaging. Oh boy! The tears I have shed to lay my hands on the latest Android phone. Why? Because how could I be alive and NOT be on WhatsApp? I had to tell the world in emoticons that life was good.

That joy was sure unparalleled, but what had I put myself into? My phone had suddenly started buzzing a little too much, and the conversations were made more fun by the introduction of emoticons which could say things better than text could. Plus I could send photos and videos AND audios. “Whoa this is the coolest thing ever”, I thought then. Slowly it became more of dependence than a need. It was convenient, paid for, and all it needed was my time which I had in loads back then.

Texting as a communication facility has been kind to the human race, but it has taken away more than it has given. Texting has brought me closer to people whom I don’t see every day and made me indifferent to people who are around me. Ironic much?

I won’t deny the fact that I have become a slave to technology in general and texting in particular. I have been often asked to “throw away” my phone and/or “bury myself with it”, and at times I have also been casually asked to “take a trip to hell”. So it has definitely had some sort of deep impact on my interpersonal relationships and the communication that comes with them. It has made me less appreciative of people who are around me, engaging me with people who aren’t in my vicinity and unfortunately, made me more people-pleasing.

Of late, inspired by this video titled ‘Look Up‘ that has gone viral on the web, I have started this experiment of shutting my phone for a good one hour and engaging myself in non-digital activities. (Editor’s note: Here is my take on the video Look Up.) An unfortunate revelation is, no one in my texting sphere has noticed my absence. If I am not around even for a while, my family notices, worries and questions and that is something that comforts. I admit I am going through a few withdrawal symptoms like checking the phone in haste only to find it off, the urge to turn it on again, etc, but otherwise, I am coping pretty well.

Texting has gone a long way in human engagement. But don’t we all confide in the fact that too much of everything isn’t good? I was an avid reader for a long time before my phone became something I began and ended my days with. Texting has made me restless and jittery, not to forget anxious.Of late, I have started taking conscious efforts keeping my circle and interactions limited and I am enjoying a certain peace of mind that I was missing before.

It’s a different world, virtually engaging, and importantly converging and I could very well call it a double edged sword. Everything monitored and within limits is appreciable; and that is much applicable to texting too.

“Moderation sweetheart, Moderation”, I tell myself.

(Apoorva is a self-confessed procrastinator extraordinaire who wants to end up being an amusing academician, teaching all things weird and twisted. She also believes that dishing out gyaan every now and then keeps her sane. She blogs at http://nanjangudapoorva.wordpress.com/ ).

Why I Started to Text and Other Stories

Guest Post by Utkarsha Kotian

Utkarsha My first love with texting started when I was in high school. I had my own phone by the time I was 15 and had discovered the etiquette of sending messages way before that during the period of pagers:

1. Never use “urgent” if it’s not urgent;

2. Never send vague messages that panic people;

3. And above all, don’t leave a message if you can wait till you see the person.

With this holy grail of texting fastened to my belt, I entered junior college in 2007. Little was I to know that my dexterity in sending messages would last well beyond college, beyond my cheese-hogging phase, and later my I-have-to-eat-healthy-phase.
About seven years ago when I entered college, there existed a breed of species that didn’t own a cell phone. All I could hope then was to make friends with people who owned one and, more importantly, used it actively. That was the foundation of most of my friendships – don’t have a phone!? How will we speak then?

Statistically speaking, in a country like India, you should have a lot of people with similar thought processes and tastes. People to “connect” with. In reality, the perfect friend and partner may be miles away in a different city, state or country. I discovered that texting was the way I could connect with all those people who were similar to me, after spending years in company of those who never understood my likes or choices. Sure, the internet and messengers played a huge role in making new friends (there never was nor can be anything like Yahoo! Messenger), but the next step to any friendship was exchanging numbers so that you could chat without having to connect over a dial-up connection on your PC.

Even so, calling was my base mode of communication. Everything changed when my parents decided that they’d get me a prepaid SIM card (bills in the first few months ran into 1000s) and then Vodafone decided to give levies away on texting. Suddenly, no text was too long and no conversation was not “urgent” enough.

Till a couple of years ago, I sent around 350-360 texts a day (the limit on the unlimited scheme was 500 a day). Yes, actual text messages because IM apps either didn’t exist then or in all honesty, I didn’t bother much. All I needed was a sturdy phone and a friend with the same SMS pack. I’d be lying if I said I was not an addict to texting. What started out with keeping in touch with friends who didn’t stay in Mumbai, turned into a full blown relationship with people I refused to meet because I could text them and “keep in touch” at the same time while being comfortable at home.

To add to all of this, growing up in India has never been easy for people with friends from the opposite sex. Sure, you enter college and have friends you can hang out with irrespective of your gender, but even now if I am going to a coffee shop with a guy friend, I have to make sure none of the “aunties” are around to tattle to the rest of the world. Thankfully, armed with a mobile phone and an unlimited SMS-pack I could text a guy without anyone around knowing whom I was talking to and about what. That sort of anonymity is so liberating that I don’t think I could have friends any other way.

Then the unthinkable happened, the Government of India decided that no one could send more than a 100 messages in a day and I was shattered. Then WhatsApp entered our lives. And suddenly, all texting took place in live time.

Texting has long been a crutch for my life because I am a procrastinator. I hate moving out of my house to meet people, though I love company. Getting to know a person because I text them often is liberating for a “home-body” like me.

Texting is not just a convenient way of conversing with people, it’s also the simplest and the most manipulative. I can choose how much I have to reveal over a text – a convenience not available while holding a face to face chat. I can lie through my teeth and the person I am having the conversation would have no clue. Conversely, I can form a deep bond and talk about my deepest secrets and bare my heart to a person while I text, knowing perfectly well that they can’t see my face turn a perfect shade of beetroot red or that I am anxious for a reply.

I could simply send a “:P” smiley and turn an insult into a joke; a “” could be an exaggerated version of simply feeling down. And most importantly XOXO like it’s nobody’s business. In reality, I wouldn’t want to kiss as many people as I send kisses to on IMs.

It’s not just a matter of how personal I want a text to be without betraying emotions, but also how comfortable I am in not meeting people and yet knowing them inside out. It’s the power to make friends without the whole emotional angle to it where if things sour, my easiest way out is to block the number and continue texting with others. I am sure I’m not the only one of my generation who views text relationships more seriously than some actual interpersonal ones. But I am proud to be one of the few who can be just as comfortable with “text-friends” when I meet them personally and be able to make conversations with them.
I used to use a term quite often a few years ago – “I live in your phone”, a way of telling people that look, this is as real as I can get. Anything more than this will lead to unnecessary tangles. It’s not that I am wary of commitment but I am wary of friendships that have lasted long enough only because my text buddy is assured of never meeting me. The physical distance in texting amplifies the sharing process for me.

It’s been a long journey with me and texting, full of ups and downs. Sometimes I texted because I needed friends and at other times because I didn’t. I have lost count of how much of my social life depends on my phone and how many people I send a good morning message to, to keep our conversations go on for months without a pause and without meeting. I know I’d be a cripple if the power to text was taken away from me but I think I am fairly confident in telling people now that “I have lived in your phone for long. I wouldn’t mind making this an outside-of-the-phone friendship too”.

Texting has been liberating for me, it has bought me confidence in my opinions because the person opposite me could not shout at me. It has bought me much-needed emotional disconnect that doesn’t let the problems in people’s lives affect me much. It has also made me realise the importance of friendship because I wait for my friends in other time zones to be awake to share news. My parents had pen pals, I’ve had texting buddies.

I’m thankful for having them, because they’re the best people I know. And I’m grateful to have been able to text people no matter where I am, because they’ve been the best conversations I’ve ever had.

(Utkarsha Kotian is a 22-year-old soon to be English Literature postgrad. She talks a lot and never takes a clue on when to shut up. Since she loves animated conversations and often people do not want to listen, she blogs! You can find her blog here.)