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Sunday, 17 April 2011

The age of the short put-down is not dead

I do not like thee, Dr. Fell,
The reason why, I cannot tell—
But this I know, and know full well:
I do not like thee, Dr. Fell.

Legend hath that poet Tom Brown was set to translate a Martial epigram from Latin, by the Dean of Christchurch who was later Bishop of Oxford. You can read about it here.

Someone I know very well (no names, no pack-drill) once engraved a quatrain on a bench in the Chemistry lecture theatre, a celebration of Joe Broe, our lecturer and a very dry but thorough old stick. It read:

J. J. Broe
Never said no
That is of course unless
He'd plainly first said yes.

Now this was in the mould of the clerihew, a form developed by E. C. (Edmund Clerihew) Bentley. These usually featured some nonsense, but also reflected on the career of the subject:

Sir Humphry Davy
Abominated gravy
Because he lived under the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

Then W. H. Auden offered his set of 61 clerihews now collected as 'Academic Graffiti', and one of the three slips of paper in my Collected Auden allows me to open up there.  Here's one:

Mr. Robert Liston
Used the saw like a piston
He was that elated
When he amputated.

There are some more here.

But nobody writes clerihews any more. Mine My friend's in the lecture theatre was one of the last of its kind. But the short put-down lives on, even in apocryphal ones like the exchange between Margot Asquith and Jean Harlowe, when Harlow supposedly called Asquith Mah-got, and was corrected with a frosty observation that "the t is silent—as in Harlowe".

The short put-down has emerged again.  I recently discovered the Green Tea Party blog, which is a hoot.  Today, came a "tweet of the day" from a comedian whom I have hitherto not rated highly, Will Ferrell. It reads:

Dear scissors, I feel your pain . . . . Nobody wants to run with me either.  Sincerely, Sarah Palin.

Like all innovations, Twitter has been loudly slammed by those who don't understand it and don't want to understand it.  I don't really understand Twitter either, but I'm waiting for Twitter and its users to determine what it is.

Recall that the Internet was seen as a way of sharing scientific data and not what it is now, and one version has Bell inventing the telephone to deliver sermons to multiple churches.  New technology rarely ends up being what the inventors thought it would be: the users decide that.

Users like Mr. Ferrell are now making the key decisions about Twitter by the ways they use it.  Come back to this thought in 2020, and see if I was evidencing any sort of 2020 vision—or if I got it wrong like Sir William Preece, who thought (allegedly) that messenger boys were better than telephones

And I think I will need to re-assess Mr. Ferrell.

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