By Meg DeMouth, MUSE Editor
SXSW starts tomorrow. For those who don’t know, it’s an annual music and film festival in Austin, Texas. I don’t remember when, exactly, I realized that SXSW and ‘South by Southwest’ were one and the same, but I do remember wondering, at the time, whether the abbreviated moniker was brilliant or ridiculous. ‘X’ as a symbol often comes loaded with (sometimes weirdly displaced) religious connotations – think of the ‘X’ in ‘Railroad X-ing,’ i.e., ‘Railroad Crossing,’ and then think of the ‘X’ in the rather obnoxious abbreviation of ‘Christmas’ to ‘Xmas.’ To be fair, I’m lining those two ‘X’s’ up rather misleadingly; the ‘X’ in ‘Xmas’ doesn’t actually come from the idea that ‘Christ’ becomes ‘X’ because he died on a cross, it comes from the Greek Chi-Rho symbol, which stood for Christ way back in the day. Thank you Art History 101.
The point though, isn’t that letters mean more than just the sounds they represent – it’s that humans have been messing with symbols and abbreviations for ages, long before Carnegie Mellon professor Scott Fahlman typed the first emoticon into a computer in the 80’s.
And it sort of gets me down. As I said, I still don’t know how I feel about that SXSW abbreviation. Ever-reliable Wikipedia tells me that SXSW got its name from a play on the title of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Does shortening the name to four block letters erase the juicy connotations that ‘south by southwest’ has when written out?
Yesterday I edited an article by MUSE music editor Lucien Flores that offers his insight on Brit-band alt-J, and I swear to Chi-Rho that I spent 20 frantic minutes – as the article’s deadline swiftly approached – attempting to figure out whether the ‘a’ in ‘alt’ was supposed to be capitalized or not. (Ok, it was perhaps closer to five minutes … but still.) The verdict? We don’t know. The band’s name is actually ∆, the sign Mac keyboards make when you press ‘alt’ and then ‘j.’ Is this very clever of them, or just kind of pretentiously artsy and annoying?
In that same article, Lucien references the band Why? as well. As in ‘Whywithaquestionmark.’ At which point the editor in me practically threw the towel in, quietly lamenting the appearances of little green grammar-error flags underneath all of the sentences with the band’s name in them. Whymewithaquestionmark?
How does one pronounce Why?, exactly? Or ∆? I’m tempted to call them ‘delta’ instead.
There’s a huge part of me that resents these clever little abbreviations. They seem gimmicky to me, vaguely avant-garde but with no substantive backing – and they often erase the meaning that written-out words have. They hearken to the society that produced them, a society where my roommate and I occasionally say ‘lawls’ instead of ‘lol’ instead of simply laughing – layers upon layers of condensing action – and then immediately hate ourselves for it.
I’m a self-pronounced fan of words. I like their complex connotations; I like that I can look them up in the Oxford English Dictionary and see that the collective scholarly world knows more about the origins of some words than it does about the bottom of the ocean floor. Words, like the ocean, and unlike this sentence, have a depth to them.
Yet, by erasing them, as in the case of SXSW of alt-J, do we find a meaning that transcends the limitations that words pose? By opting for letters and symbols, do we open up to more interpretation, to definitions unbound by the weight of words? Or do we simply fall for the gimmick?