Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Roman Texting


Meant to mention this one last week … the Daily Mail had a sort of reviewish/excerptish thing about Mark Forsyth's The Etymologicon (which I might pick up some day) which included the following:

How the Romans gave us text messages

[…] It's all thanks to Quintilian, the great 1st century Roman orator. In
his book on speeches, Quintilian said that, after you have chosen your
words, they must be weaved together into a fine and delicate fabric — and
the Latin for fabric is textum.

Quintilian's metaphor has clung on for 2,000 years. We still weave
stories together, embroider them and try never to lose the thread of
the tale. Later classical writers took up text to mean any short passage
in a book.

More recently, we started using text to mean anything that was written
down; and then somebody invented the SMS message, borrowing
Quintilian's metaphor in the process. […]

Interestingly, the Daily Mail's original article included a cartoonish thing of a Roman (presumably) keying LOL into his cell phone. But really … if we are going to push this 'invention of texting' onto the Romans, let's do it right and acknowledge that the Romans were first to use all sorts of abbreviations in their messages to save character space. We all remember that day in Latin class when we first encountered a letter of Cicero or Pliny and scratched our heads at SVV (si vales valeo) or SVBEEV (si vales bene est ego valeo) and variations thereupon … if you happened to do a Master's thesis on imperial rescripta (and perhaps did the same sort of thing in your never-finished Ph.D. dissertation), you would have spent a couple of paragraphs commenting on legal responses being appended with the abbreviations pp (presumably for proposita), d (datum? dare epistulam?), s (scripta? supposita? subscripta? subdita? scripsi?), acc (probably 'accepta') — heck, if I were writing that thesis/diss today, I'd probably call imperial rescripta the ancient version of texts or (better) tweets. And, of course, we need not get into the zillions of inscriptions which begin with DM or the zillions more with abbreviation after abbreviation around which many an epigrapher's career has been made. Romans knew how to keep things under 140 characters (metaphorically speaking) when they wanted to …