Mind your thumbspeak, no one else will

By Christian Nielsen

Deciphering hieroglyphs is much more fun than decoding the ‘thumbspeak' of SMS .

27 July 2009

Hieroglyphs spoke volumes about ancient cultures striving to understand and be understood. For thousands of years, civilisations ‘progressed' by improving their ability to communicate, first through pictures and written language on Egyptian papyrus and later Chinese paper – an evolution culminating perhaps in Gutenberg's printing press which made mass communications possible.

Still moving forward, typewriters and then word processors took mass communications to new levels, charting the future content-driven space we all know and love – the internet.  But the ‘disruptive innovation' that followed really did live up to its name and turned things upside down, disrupting more than business and industry. It broke a chain of language progression spanning millennia.

Mobile devices allow us to keep in touch with one or anyone at the press of a button (or two). They spawned the cheap and cheerful SMS explosion, driven by cost-conscious youths with ample time to tap endlessly into dinky keypads. It was only a matter of time before the attention-deficit drugs wore off and this need-for-speed generation grew tired of spelling out words. And the rest is history:  a whole new language was born, out of necessity you might say.

[“Gr8!” the teens retort . “Another old fart ranting about the good old days when people still spoke proper.”]

Not so. I would never advocate a world that preserved its language in formaldehyde or sealed it off hermetically like the French try to do. The power of the English language over the world today is in large part down to its predatory and adaptive nature, taking in all newcomers, from the succinct additions of the Vikings to the refinements of the Norman influences. Come one, come all.

But for feck's sake spare us from texting language – short, abbreviated versions of ‘real' words which need their own dictionary entry on Webopedia so that parents can know what their kids are up to. The New Yorker calls this “Thumbspeak” – which is surely so close to dumb speak that I shouldn't have to point it out! – and mentions how this phenomenon inspired David Crystal to write his book Txtng.

And spare us from the world of acronyms invading this planet like unwanted bacteria.


This isn't a word as far as I know, but at the rate new, stupid words are invented to cope with technology's hold on language, it probably won't take long before it will exist. So, I'll stake my claim to coining it early.

Yes, I have a bit of an aversion to acronyms. It's not a fully fledged revulsion because that would open me up to accusations of hypocrisy whenever I slip in an acronym and – God forbid – not spell it out, or worse still, try to invent one out of a need to be clever.

Of course, disruptive technologies – and for this we may include the internet – are not all bad. I found this very useful website which tracks down the meaning of acronyms. Typing in the word STUPID yielded a satisfactory result to illustrate the point (or pointlessness) of acronyms.  It stands for “Smart Talented Unique Person in Demand”. This is probably the same person who comes up with acronyms for new government initiatives, or oil pipelines.

[“Oil pipelines – where did that come from?” you rightly ask.]

In its recent report, The Economist couldn't help but editorialise a little on a recent oil pipeline deal (‘He who pays for the pipeline calls the tune').

“[Russia's] Gazprom has just signed a $2.5 billion deal with Nigeria (it was named Nigaz, showing a refreshing ignorance of politically incorrect language).”

At least acronyms can be good for a laugh.

Maybe this is all 2MI (look it up!) and some kid will tell me to GAL. But I assure you I do. But then let's go back to hieroglyphs – at least, they'll be easier to understand because texting is all hieroglyphics to me anyway.  Luckily, there's a hieroglyph-making website to help with that, too.

This article is published with the author's permission. © Copyright – Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.



  • Christian Nielsen

    Christian Nielsen is a journalist, copy writer and editor based in Brussels. He writes pretty much anything that takes his fancy, from the woes of travelling with kids to the dangers of antidepressants, but technology, EU affairs and science writing pay the bills.

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2 thoughts on “Mind your thumbspeak, no one else will

  • Personally I cannot bring myself to typing any of these smilies and its derative winkies. It seems useless and narrowing. Chinese, Maya glyphs are a real language. Texting is fast-food for the young and restless. Ignorance is bliss.

  • Jackie Jukes

    Loved it…. right on the mark….I felt very intelligent the other day when my son, daughter and I were watching my sons TV program on Austar and the producer of a young model made a statment that she “looked as though she was having a BM” My 16yr old and 13yr old turned to me and asked “what’s that mean?”… “Bowel Motion” I piped up feeling very up with it… Of course being a nurse helped….You are a great craftsman Christian Nielsen…. lol luv ya jj xx


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