Thursday, February 26, 2015

Our Evolving Language

As a Social-Security-eligible baby boomer, I am constantly struggling to accept the changes I cannot unchange. I accept, for example, that all things new do not suck. I accept that a single space between sentences is sufficient. But certain aspects of our evolving language present challenges that have me shouting into the gale. I have ranted previously about the fugly misuse of terms such as “begs the question,” and “ultimate.” I accept that such terms will continue to be misused, and I try not to judge those who do, and I accept the word “fugly.”

But sometimes my calcified mind fails to adjust, as in the case of the headline “Wife of Billionaire Demands 1M Per Month in Child Support.”

My thought upon reading that is, A thousand bucks a month? Why so little? Of course, when I succumb to the clickbait headline, I find that the wife is asking for a million bucks a month, which is far less interesting than a thousand.
Until maybe twenty-five years ago, “1M” was generally understood to mean 1000, “M” being the Roman numeral for 1000. Twenty-five years ago if one wanted to abbreviate 1,000,000, one would write 1MM.

Why did this change? Where did the other M go? And why am I having so much trouble adapting?

I blame the “K,” as in kilo, the metric prefix for 1000. We run a 10K (ten times 1000 meters), we talk about things like annual salaries and the cost of cars in terms of Ks. And once K entered the language as shorthand for 1000, people stopped using M so much and sort of forgot what it meant.

Then computers and email happened, and the world went crazy for acronyms and abbreviations. The people using this new technology were relatively young and they had not learned their Roman numerals, so when they needed to shorten the word “million” they used the letter (not the Roman numeral) M.

Okay, that’s reasonable. Roman numerals are rather pretentious and not terribly useful. Language changes. Maybe this baby boomer brain can change too.

Oh, but it burns!