If this book review is tl;dr, just know that Emmy Favilla slays in her epic style guide, A World Without Whom. Emmy is the hero we need to navigate the increasingly murky waters of English usage in the internet age and she takes on this challenge with confidence and brio. If you came for tips on proper punctuation, grammar usage, and when to cap major holidays, Emmy is here for that; however, where she really shines is in acting as a witty and self-deprecating guide to the ever-mutating rules of the road for writing on the internet. Her task is a Herculean one – unlike generations ago, when the OED was updated once every decade and the uproar caused in 1961 with the publication of Webster’s New International Dictionary (Third Edition) took years to sort through, the internet (lower case, in case you were wondering) has changed the rules of the game and requires near-constant updating on questions like “do you put the emoji inside or outside the quotation marks” that copy editors of yesteryear could not even imagine (the answer, by the way, is “outside”).
If A World Without Whom was simply focused on the never-ending battle between prescriptivists and descriptivists, it would be a pithy, but unremarkable addition to the niche area of English usage books in the library that dorks like me love. Favilla checks the boxes in her early chapters so readers are educated about the nuances of en- and em-dash usage, but things really pick up once the former Copy Chief at BuzzFeed (Favilla is still with the website but in a different role) digs into more important matters like contextualizing “Neville Longbottoming” and “thirst trap.” For an old like me, perusing the internet can seem like reading words in a foreign language and A World Without Whom is an excellent decoder ring.
Ms. Favilla is a cheeky writer, born on the cusp between Generation X and Millenials, (capped as proper nouns), her writing is sprinkled with sarcastic parenthetical asides the former will appreciate combined with the glib, acronym heavy patois the latter will recognize immediately. But even as Favilla is examining the outer bounds of English usage in the internet age (“is it ok to use the word ‘cock’ in a dek?” (a dek, we learn, is editorial lingo for sub-heading)), her feet are firmly planted on more prosaic issues like the adoption of the singular form of “they” (she supports, as do I), and the eternal battle over the Oxford comma (ditto and ditto).
While the internet has democratized language in new and important ways, for example, the use of emojis to provide greater richness and context to statements that might otherwise be open to interpretation (a complaint of the early years of email – “they lacked ‘tone’”), in others, everything old is new again. Slang, and its mainstreaming into the culture via social media, is a subject Favilla delves deeply into so that you can properly pull out your receipts and sip your tea (although Favilla will be happy to know “jiggery pokery” made a comeback in one of Justice Scalia’s final dissents in 2015). But the thing is, appropriation of language has gone on since at least the first Airplane! movie and Grace’s “righteous dude” monologue in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it’s just that those riffs are now turned into GIFs (hard G in BuzzFeed style guide, fyi) and memes that have merged with common terms to create a new way of communicating.
And there is more. As Ms. Favilla rounds third and heads for home, she pours one out for lol to show how quickly jargon that originated in the internet-age can be sapped of its original meaning. First used in the literal sense that you were “laughing out loud,” twenty years on, lol has become the um, er, or like of electronic communication – a throat-clearing way to fill space while the sentiment lol was originally used to express has been supplanted by 42 (!) alternative methods (not to mention “crying man” emoji, the most popular emoji of them all).
Coolness in the culture has, is, and always will be driven by what people under the age of 30 deem it; which is why Facebook is now the Dad Jeans of the internet as younger people migrate to different platforms away from their parents’ preying eyes. And so, there is also the risk that A World Without Whom itself will become outdated or look like as dusty a relic as my 1911 Oxford English Dictionary, only in far less time. It is hard to know, but, as they say, nothing lasts forever, not even cold November rain (or the hyphen in “email.”). Nailed it.