Email conventions seeping into handwriting

James E. Clapp jeclapp at WANS.NET
Tue Aug 3 22:52:12 UTC 1999

A. Vine wrote:
> Why is it that I live and work amongst a high concentration of computer
> nerds, particularly of the email variety, and I have never:
> seen anyone write an email convention by hand, or
> heard anyone speak an email convention?
> Who are the folks who are doing this?

I'm still trying to figure out who uses them in e-mail!

I have a two part analysis, in which I reach opposite conclusions about
the two basic types of e-mail symbolism:

1.  Initialisms:

The people who use these are people who never learned to type.  For a
typist, it's quicker and easier to type "in my opinion" than "IMHO," which
requires holding down the shift key while typing four unrelated

Of course, there's also an in-group feeling among users (*we* know what
this means; the uninitiated will just have to wonder).  Initialisms drive
me--an uninitiate--nuts, because every time I come upon a new one I have
to sit there and work out a puzzle just to figure out what somebody might
be trying to say.  Often I have to e-mail the initialism to someone more
knowledgeable for decrypting.  And they call this a form of communication?

Of course, usually when I get the translation I realize that the coded
phrase was just verbiage anyway.

On the other hand, to the extent that these become established and say
anything worth saying, the one place that they could actually be useful is
in handwritten notes.  Not that there are very many of those, anymore; but
if, hypothetically, I were writing a note by hand, and, even more
hypothetically, thought it necessary to say "in my humble opinion," it'd
be easier to write IMHO.

2.  Emoticons

Of course, Dave Barry got it right:  If you know how to write, you
generally don't have to use an icon to make it clear how you feel.  That's
what the writing is for.

Several aspects of e-mail, however, make it vulnerable to
misunderstanding:  It is often off-the-cuff, too brief for nuance, and
sent to people who know absolutely nothing about the writer.  So as ditzy
as emoticons are, they can actually play a useful prophylactic role in
e-mail--though I myself still eschew them.  No matter how clearly, wildly
outrageous you think your comment is, somebody out there will take you
seriously if you don't flag it with an emoticon or a <g> -- although this
list, which is far more sophisticated than others I'm on, may be an
exception: I'm not sure anyone on this list would have taken seriously, as
many elsewhere did, the hilarious story being passed around that Microsoft
is going to start selling ad space on its error messages.

But the features that make such flags useful in anonymous e-mail are
seldom present in individual typed or handwritten messages.  Most such
notes are written to people who know enough about where we stand on the
issue being discussed so that we don't have to tip them off about whether
we're serious or not.  So it is really hard to see why anybody would use
them outside of a bulk e-mail context, save as a modish or in-groupy thing
to do.

James E. Clapp

P.S. about this list:  I think it significant that emoticons and voguish
initialisms are seldom seen here; when you have a group of people who are
good with language, they tend to prefer meaningful words to faddish
formulas and don't generally have to worry about being misunderstood (not
that it can't happen on occasion).  I imagine this is typical of lists
that attract a lot of academics.  Most of the lists I'm on are for lawyers
and computer people, and boy, it's a different world out there!

P.S. about the world out there, and how easily you can be misunderstood:
On one of my lists somebody posted the old saw about the lawyer's child
who said his father played the piano in a brothel because he didn't want
to admit what his father really did.  (To make it clear that the posting
was intended for amusement and not an expression of malice toward lawyers,
the poster put a <g> after it.)  Somebody replied, "So tell us, what did
he really do in a brothel?"  A fairly clever joke on a joke, right?  But I
guess he should have included a winking or grinning emoticon, because
somebody then wrote in to explain the original posting to him:  It was a
joke, see; the father wasn't *really* in a brothel, he was *really* a
lawyer; the kid just *said* he worked in a brothel because [etc.].  (The
explanation concluded: "Kudos to whomever the original poster was.")  The
person who (or should I say whom) had posted the joke on the joke finally
wrote back and said (either forlornly or wryly--I couldn't tell which
because there was no emoticon), "That was a joke, too, but some didn't get
it, I guess."

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