Mind your language

Ha! vs Hahaha: the surprisingly subtle world of Twitter style

Compression has encouraged wit

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

I don’t know if you tweet — No! Don’t turn over, I’m not going to get all techie. I do not tweet, but my husband does, voluminously. I won’t betray his rather strange handle and avatar. Those are technical terms, but they are not the main point I want to make now. The handle is the username, such as @DotWordsworth. That example is not me, but one of the four Twitter accounts apparently written by Dorothy Wordsworth. The one using my name declares in her online profile ‘My bowels very bad.’ Have I ever written that here? No.

The avatar is the little picture of the user that appears at the top of each account and with every tweet. Everyone knows an avatar derives from Hindu mythology. The word was introduced into English in 1784 by that clever man William Jones (who at the age of 18 learnt Arabic at Oxford with the aid of a Syrian who helped him translate The Arabian Nights back into the original). When Jones wrote Pindaric odes to Hindu deities, he tactfully refrained from addressing Durga in her Kali avatar — black, four-armed, standing on a corpse, holding a severed head and wearing only a necklace of skulls. Only in the 1980s did the computer gaming people get hold of the word avatar, for a role-playing identity. (A concept adapted for James Cameron’s rather poor film Avatar.) But such technical terms are less interesting than the new language that has developed on Twitter.

It is partly the function of the limit of 140 characters for each tweet. Some use emoticons. I despise commercial ones pasted on (reserves of computer viruses, as buboes were of plague). Those constructed sideways from punctuation marks aren’t quite so bad: the smiley 🙂 the winking 😉 the laughing ;-D the glum 🙁 and so on.

But here’s the point. Twitter encourages subtlety. An example: the reply ‘Ha!’ to a witticism. This seems to recognise a thrust without betraying how deeply it went home. I also suspect that the reply ‘Hahaha’ purports to share a joke while serving to parry further attack. Twitter is a battlefield, but its compressed language, more nuanced than that outmoded bore text language, invites exploration.

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  • saffrin