A Brief History


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Less is more.

Omit needless words.

Brevity is the soul of wit.

Offer very little information about yourself.

There’s a temptation to create some tenuous, half-baked linkage between the recession and a newfound desire to be economical with words. But concision, be it motivated by pragmatic or aesthetic reasons, is hardly a 21st-century invention. Proverbs and aphorisms trace back to the ancient Greeks, and koans first appeared in China during the fifth or sixth century. These short bursts of wisdom were designed to be easy to remember, an important quality in cultures that were primarily oral.

By the early 17th century, Shakespeare was praising short and snappy punchlines in Hamlet. Later that century, Japanese poet Matsuo Basho became a haiku master thanks to his immortal frog-pond-splash trifecta. By the 20th century, the telegraph made it possible to send your thoughts around the world, but curtness was an economic imperative since you were charged per word. The modern equivalent of the telegraph, thumb-intensive cellphone SMS (text messaging) also makes pithy thoughts a necessity. And overdiscussed Twitter imposes a 140-character limit on your genius, which works out to 20 or 30 words, depending on the sophistication of your vocabulary.

Concision has a long, proud history, but pundits are now blaming the brevity of tweets for attention-span erosion that will hasten our descent into duh, stupidness. Tom Tomorrow recently suggested in his This Modern World comic that blogs will soon be replaced with single-word tweets (“happy,” “bored,” “sad”). The Daily Show‘s Samantha Bee took the same joke one step further with talk of Grunter (“not all my followers have time to read my entire tweet”) and the equally sub-syllabic Voweller.

Although Bee and Tomorrow are satirists, behind every joke lurks a grain of truth. Why waste precious time formulating a reasoned counter-argument to something you disagree with online when “meh” or “FAIL” will suffice? But if one-word tweets or grunts suggest a dystopic Idiocracy, what about communications consisting of a lone character? In a telegram exchange attributed to both Oscar Wilde and Victor Hugo, the curious writer inquires about sales of his recent book by sending his publisher a lone: ?

The response, of course, was: !

The concision of telegrams created poetry and wit born of economy. “STREETS FULL OF WATER. PLEASE ADVISE,” is what humorist Robert Benchley sent his editor at The New Yorker upon arriving in Venice for the first time. Coincidentally, Benchley’s telegram is six words — exactly the length imposed upon the memoirs published in last year’s anthology Not Quite What I Was Planning. The New Yorker‘s Lizzie Widdicombe attended the book launch and filed an entire Talk of the Town dispatch in sextuplets: “There was Summer Grimes, twenty-five. She’s a hairdresser in St. Paul. She had written the book’s title. It took `two minutes,’ she explained.”

Another, more profane, but no less compelling example of effective terseness appears in the first season of The Wire. In episode four, two homicide detectives re-investigate a six-month-old apartment crime scene on a hunch. This sounds bland and straightforward, except the dialogue between the two cops involves variations on the f-word, and nothing else, for four minutes. Just as with Mandarin, a language that relies upon inflection in pitch to make the same syllable convey different meanings, actors Wendell Pierce and Dominic West turn the word around in their mouths, using it to register disgust, anger, frustration and surprise. And without any exposition, the viewer is able to understand how a vital piece of evidence was overlooked.

The Wire, the six-word memoir, and the wordless telegram suggest that constraints generate creativity and that the utility of concision depends on context – one of the biggest commitments many of us will ever make is made possible through two little words: “I do.”

But being laconic can also belittle – nothing conveys the limitations of a book like a pat summary. For almost 10 years, John Crace has written The Digested Read column for The Guardian, where he trash-compacts a given book into 700 words or so, mimicking the author’s tone and style in the process. Acknowledging our hyper-accelerated era, the column now concludes with “The digested read, digested.” For Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey, this meant: “James gets lost in La La Land.” Concise book reviews can be funny, but books that succumb to shortness of breath is a more serious development. Even the most progressive literature buff will find their heart hurting after learning about the popularity of cell phone novels in Japan. As Dana Goodyear reported in The New Yorker this past December, “Unlike working in longhand, which requires that an author know the complex strokes for several thousand kanji, and execute them well, writing on a cell phone lowers the barrier for a would-be novelist. The novels are correspondingly easy to read — most would pose no challenge to a 10-year-old — with short lines, simple words, and a repetitive vocabulary.”

Beyond being simple, being succinct is not always bereft of ideology. “Omit needless words” is writing advice from The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, echoed by Orwell (“if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out”) in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” But Orwell also described the danger of condensed language in his novel 1984. According to Syme, one of Winston Smith’s co-workers at the Ministry of Truth, “The whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought. In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

Advertising slogans also take advantage of concision, generating a different type of thoughtcrime. The quicker picker upper and the breakfast of champions are capitalist proverbs, memes designed to burrow into your brain and encourage you to buy. Our constant exposure to these epigrammatic selling propositions might explain why Twitter lends itself so well to self-advertisement. But the most insidious aspect of selling yourself short is described by Noam Chomsky in the documentary Manufacturing Consent, who notes that appearing on television necessitates the ability to speak in thought-bites. “The beauty of concision,” Chomsky explains, “is that you can only repeat conventional thoughts.” If you want to make a seemingly outlandish claim (Chomsky’s examples include “education is a system of imposed ignorance”), you have to provide sufficient evidence or no one will believe you. “But you can’t give evidence if you’re stuck with concision,” Chomsky says, tracing the perfect circle formed by brevity’s Catch-22.

Which is not to say short can’t be smart, or at least smart’s second cousin, clever — Oscar Wilde and Victor Hugo, anyone(?…!) Artist Jenny Holzer built her career around short, occasionally cryptic statements called truisms: “Abuse of power comes as no surprise” or the aforementioned “Offer very little information about yourself.” And what is poetry, after all, but an attempt to remove unnecessary words. Henri Cole won the 2008 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for his book Blackbird and Wolf, which was praised by one judge for its “art of violent concision.”

Writer Ian Garrick Mason, in a recent blog post on Sans Everything, offers balm for those who fear brusqueness, noting that, “Our communication and entertainment formats have been multiplying and diversifying, not getting shorter.” The sitcom, he observes, has not supplanted the opera. Similarly, Twitter will not replace the paragraph, only publicly demonstrate concision’s vices and virtues. Naysayers seeking an example of the latter should try following TheMime. Here, in full, are his three most recent tweets:

… • 20 March 2009