Spam Theory 

Rosie Right

In case you missed:

An article headlined "You've Got Mail, More and More, and Mostly, It Is Junk" in the Dec. 24 New York Times discussed the nuisance of spam — not, of course, the potted meat but the junk e-mail that is proliferating and filling everyone's electronic mailbox. Rosie's eye was caught by the explanation that the author Amy Harmon gave for the derivation of the word spam used in this sense.

According to Harmon, the term comes from "the Monty Python skit about a couple in a restaurant trying to order food while a chorus of Vikings sings 'spam spam spam spam, lovely spam, wonderful spam,' drowning out all other conversation."

This seems like a fine theory to Rosie, for the prevalence of spam in her-mail almost drowns out the pleasure of hearing from friends who would never take up stationery, pen and stamp and write to her by snail mail.

The Dec. 20 Economist includes a fascinating unsigned article about the global triumph of English: "A world empire by other means." Truly, it demonstrates what Rosie has written about before: the rapid disappearance of small languages. According to this essay, a couple of these languages (of which there are from 6,000 to 7,000) disappear every week.

But looking at the other side of the coin, we see that the triumph of English enables all the peoples of the world to do business with each other. In fact, one of the interesting little tidbits in this article is that when "Germany and Japan were negotiating their alliance against America and Britain in 1940, their two foreign ministers, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Yosuke Matsuoka, held their discussions in English."

When English takes over the world of business and diplomacy, we make a mistake when we don't study other languages because they teach us the history and culture of others. To see the truth of this all we have to think about is the fact that "only nine students graduated in Arabic from universities in the United States last year." Where does that put us in the task of understanding the culture of the Middle East?

A reader has requested that Rosie print the name of the volume of Verbatim essays she wrote about. It is "Verbatim: From the Bawdy to the Sublime, the Best Writing on Language from World Lovers, Grammar Mavens, and Armchair Linguists." It is available in paperback.


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