Solons slated to meet, and other vexing issues

Do you remember solons? When I was a kid, it seemed I was always running across newspaper headlines that said things like "Solons slated to meet."

It should have been enough to discourage me from venturing forth into the "grown-up" sections of the paper. I should have stuck with the comics and the box scores. (If a newspaper is like a city, the comics and the sports pages are like the immigrant neighborhoods, where newcomers establish a toehold.)

I suspect I wasn't the only one who didn't get "solons."

Eventually I found out that Solon was the statesman and lawgiver who gave the Athenians their constitution. And lowercased generic "solon" is a highfalutin way of saying "legislator."

But - here's the clincher - it's a five-letter word for legislator, and one of the letters is "l," which takes almost no space at all. That made "solon" beloved in newsrooms where time and space were tight. And "slated" is a six-letter synonym for "scheduled." Who could resist, even if no one writes on slate anymore?

"Solons slated to meet" sounds rather quaint today in part because newspapers don't run play-by-play stories like that anymore. But it's useful to remember that the time and space pressures that we see squeezing the language today are older than your BlackBerry.

Long before you ever typed "btw, r u going 2 see me l8r?" into your cellphone, headline writers had glommed onto "panel" as an all-purpose synonym for "committee," and foreign editors were communicating with far-flung correspondents via cables as succinct - and sometimes as cryptic - as fortune-cookie fortunes. People wrote in "cablese" because cables were so expensive: Forty cents a word to Tokyo is the figure I have seared into memory from my own days on the Monitor's Asia desk in the early 1980s.

Headline writers from those days to the present have been grateful that English has so many short, punchy words, verbs especially:

• Vandals vex vehicle owners

• Red Sox blast Rangers

• N.W. utilities hail energy act

• Admiral's comments about submarine base irk local congressmen

OK, so this last has a number of long words, but you can't beat "irk" as a concise verb.

There's such a thing as being too concise, though. Jim Barger of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette counsels: "Don't write a headline you wouldn't say when talking to a friend. No one in history ever uttered, 'Woodley, defense propel Dolphins past NY.'"

The conventions of language on the Web are taking a slightly different turn from those of newspapers. Articles and conjunctions - those little words long left out of headlines to save space - make for a smoother read.

This is especially important online, where the visual clues of a newspaper (photos, section headings, logos, etc.) may be absent. Leaving the little words out can make for prose as herky-jerky as a silent movie, without the readers quite understanding why. Since Web pages don't operate under the same kind of space constraints as the printed page of a newspaper, however, they have that little bit of extra space that allows them to include "the" and "a" and "an" and "and."

They're little words, but just like the air in the pneumatic tires, they help smooth out the ride.

This appears with links at: verbal_energy

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