February 2019 Vol. 74 No. 2

Editor's Log

Farcical and Other Lost Words


Robert Carpenter | Editor-in-Chief

Words are essential to my profession so I’m admittedly sensitive. But I sometimes wonder if technology is killing our written and spoken vocabulary?

I recently read a report that claimed modern society is using only about 1/3 of its vocabulary compared to 100 years ago. If that’s true, it represents an incredible factoid.

We look back to the turn of the 20th century with jaded eyes as most would consider it a period of dull, backward lifestyles with limited options and opportunities. People today would consider it a time of rudimentary technology when modern communications was but an idle dream in the minds of their contemporary researchers and scientists. It was, in essence, a simpler time.

 Yet, those simple people could apparently express themselves in a much more elegant and precise manner than what most people today can even conceptualize. Their jargon and slang would be as foreign to us as Emoji characterization would be to them.

Communication skills interact with everything we do in life. I worry that the value of articulate and effective communication is being lost in modern society along with our vocabulary.

In the underground infrastructure markets, communication has always been extremely important. From designing projects to bid documents to jobsite operations, direct, effective communication is critical to any project’s success or failure. With a communications breakdown, bad things happen and that includes following safety protocols on the job.

Today, we obviously communicate much differently than in the past. We’re all part of the cell phone generation. How we go through the day is now shaped with instant communication and constant contact at our fingertips. Texting has further deteriorated our communication skills. It has introduced abbreviations and slang to intrude into all levels of communication. A recent report on the impact of texting upon students revealed that, not surprisingly, spelling, English and communication skills have deteriorated from previous standards and that decaying spiral is expected to continue.

To be fair, we’ve all become addicted to the convenience of our cell phones. How many of you would ever leave your house without your phone? Virtually no one.

While two-way radios are still in use on jobsite, you will rarely find anyone from a laborer to project manager that doesn’t also carry their phone, even using it to communicate with other workers. When on a job site, you don’t have to be eloquent in communication. But you do need to be precise, fully descriptive and have instant recognition of what people are communicating to you. The risks are too great to ignore good communications.

I’ve had more than one contractor complain to me about getting employees on jobsites to fully understand what’s going on and communicate properly. In one instance, a contractor was ticketed for a minor safety violation by OSHA, yet he knew that firm instructions were in place that would ensure employees met the requirements. It turns out the instructions were texted out to workers and the communication was too vague or misinterpreted.

Remember cursive writing? It used to be a key cornerstone of written communication as cursive was faster than printing plus you needed cursive for your signature on formal documents. Now, with keyboards and touch screens on every device, cursive is deemed redundant and is no longer taught in classrooms. Typing class doesn’t exist either as it is assumed that thumb and the Columbus (search and discover) finger typing methods have already been perfected before students hit junior high.

Another relevant factoid is that supposedly we’ve had more scientific achievements since 1950 than all human history combined prior to that date. That’s worth pondering.

Communication took a giant leap forward in 1836 when the first practical telegraph was invented. Before that infrastructure was established, the speed of both casual and critical communication was dependent upon a fast horse or schooner. But with the installation of the telegraph between east and west coasts, it marked the beginning of linking the entire country together.

In 1876, just 50 years after the invention of the telegraph, Thomas Edison patented the first practical telephone and the telegraph soon became a thing of the past. Next up was the development of television. Multiple inventions contributed to its development, but what is generally considered the first actual television broadcast occurred in 1926, ironically 50 years after the invention of the telephone and 100 years after the telegraph.

Where will communication end up in another 50 years? Will our language devolve into emojis? I can’t imagine abandoning the written word, but 100 years ago, I doubt if anyone could imagine using cutesy, simplistic pictures and bizarre abbreviations to describe what they could so precisely and elegantly convey with spoken and written language


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