Recently and randomly, I found on my bookshelf Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age.
■ I couldn’t believe I owned it.
■ I couldn’t believe I had forgotten it.
■ I couldn’t believe that I wanted to reread it. (Not that I had exactly read it, back in the day.)
Why revisit this circa-1996 style-guide dinosaur?
First of all, the thing is gorgeous. The book slides out of a smooth, red sheath. Out slips the charcoal-and-black volume, sleek like a perfect LBD (for those who don’t mind acronyms of fashion…that would be ‘little black dress’). I want to wear it.
Second, it’s edited by Constance Hale, author of Sin & Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose (which I have not yet read). I love the questions she poses in the intro:
When does jargon end and a new vernacular begin?
Where’s the line betweeen neologism and hype?
How can we keep pace with technology without getting bogged down in empty acronyms?
How can we write about machines without losing a sense of humanity and poetry?
Third, the style guide invites us to the party.
Shortly after I moved to Seattle in 1997, I began working in techie editorial circles. To get with the program, I bought the Wired style guide (also working with the requisite Microsoft style guide).
Wired’s Hepburnesque volume, as did much of my new world, spoke a whole other language: I was completely out of my element. (Interoperability? Huh?) I had just arrived on the West Coast and was a newbie to the deep tech lexicon.
But recently, when I revisited Wired Style, I realized that I hadn’t been late at all. I realized that I had arrived in the middle of an amazing, creative, ever-unfolding and global story.
When I sat down and geeked out with the guide on a Saturday morning, (well…really I skimmed it) I found an incredible history. Among its A to Z glossaries (peppered with excellent words like “bozo filters,” “grokking,” “otaku”), the book offers bits and bytes of great stories.
I’ll share one anecdote from Pamela McCorduck (whose name was new to me):
The dawn of the digital age? It was just the way my friends and I lived (we had an old clattering teletype up in the spare room back in 1971, along with an acoustic coupler!). It felt sweet and private and exclusive then: you could actually memorize all the email addresses of anyone you were likely to be in touch with. Time-sharing the mainframe was a very big deal, and clearly the wave of the future…
Now, I don’t know all that vocab, but I can imagine the excitement of being in on the new. Who knows what the thing might be 40 years from now?
For sure, Wired Style is dated, and of course it anticipated its own passing. But I loved stumbling upon this time capsule. A quick peek on Amazon reveals it’s going for about five bucks. Of course, all editors now can quickly search online for whatever acronym we want to tame or simply understand.
Back in 1996 and today, Wired’s style guide and the magazine itself speak to a particular community. But all of us, tech writer-editors like me and all of us word people, we’re all creating language anew every day.
It makes me wonder—as technology evolves, how does language? Our words are alive and vivid and fluid. What conventions should remain, and what should change?
To return to the style guide itself, we can find some clues in its futuristic décor, its chartreuse and noir interiors. Among the Contents:
Voice is Paramount
Transcend the Technical
Capture the Colloquial
Anticipate the Future
Screw the Rules
…This is sounding better and better every minute.
It’s 2013…what do you want to say, and how do you want to say it?