Our romantic fate was SWANK when we switched to tweet nothings
Messaging has freed us from a lot of anxiety, but we've lost much with the demise of handwritten letters
There are many good things about paperless communication. You don’t cut your tongue sealing it, get caught in the rain posting it, or run the risk of cryptographers knitting together damning evidence from the Watergate shredder.
E-mail and texting, not to mention all the other snappy chatty applications out there, have freed us from so much anxiety and delivered so many more happy endings. If Juliet were around today, she could have sent Romeo an instant message (“Having a nap, baby; don’t kill yourself”) and we’d have been spared that gaudy Baz Luhrmann music video starring Claire Danes before she became a spy and Leonardo DiCaprio before he got savaged by a bear.
There are some things you can’t do to an electronic message, of course. You can’t spray it with perfume, enclose a pressed flower in it or smack a sticky pair of ruby lip-prints on it. These things aside, I’m not one of those Luddites who is constantly bemoaning the loss of handwritten letters in stamped envelopes (just on those occasional days when nostalgia doesn’t feel as good as it used to be.)
Others have more cause to complain – think of the dogs that lie around bored stiff since the postman stopped ringing even once. And spare a thought for the poor songwriters. They are the ones most robbed, because so many love songs depend on a letter.
In the electronic age, the old oak tree would remain forever free of yellow ribbons. That chap about to be let out of prison would simply borrow the warden’s smartphone and WhatsApp his girlfriend: “Do you still want me?” She’d ping back “Yes” and save them both all that anticipation and trouble, not to mention money that could be spent on beer instead of ribbons. Tony Orlando would have had to find something else to sing about and we’d have one less earworm driving us mad in the shower.
Something else we’ve lost is the envelope acronym. These began in World War 2 and continued for as long as love letters were posted. Writers of billet doux would print SWANK (Sealed With A Nice Kiss) or SWALK (Sealed With A Loving Kiss) in sexy capital letters above the spit-sodden flap on the back of a letter.
The word “acronym”, incidentally, was coined in American English in 1943, at about the same time as soldiers’ sweethearts were writing HOLLAND (Hoping Our Love Lasts And Never Dies) on envelopes. That’s not to say there were no acronyms before; they were just lumped along with abbreviations which don’t form sayable words.
Both acronyms and abbreviations can be confusing. Following a weekend in the nether regions of SA, I received an e-mail saying: “Hope you enjoyed our WC.” I puzzled over this for some time – I had liked most rooms in the house, so why on Earth were my hosts asking my opinion of the water closet? Did it play a tune when you flushed it? If so, I don’t know how they expected me to notice, because flushing was strictly forbidden.
I might also have wondered why they gave their little room the old-fashioned title of water closet – instead of loo or toilet or bog or lav – but this was Cape Town, after all, and ... Oh, hang on. Maybe when they wrote “our WC” they meant “their” Western Cape. Yes, I think that must have been it. I wrote back to say I loved the WC and planned to visit it again, right after my next beer.
Getting back to love letters, just because we no longer rely on paper trails and snail mail doesn’t mean romance is dead. I’m sure that even as I write this, someone is composing a song about instant messaging. Tweets For My Sweet, perhaps, or You Are Always On My Screen.
Instant transmission of information and the immediate gratification it enables has made it more difficult to shed a tear at the end of songs and letters – because it removes the build-up of uncertainty that is necessary for that gush of relief when things turn out okay – but there are still pockets of resistance to such smug certitude. I imagine some members of the DA in the WC are having a HOLLAND moment right now.