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December 6th, 2006

Text message as a verb / Guardsman vs. Guard

by Barbara Wallraff

Linda Gawronski, of Canton, Mich., writes: “My husband and I had a discussion about the use of ‘text message.’ It is being used as a verb. What would be correct: ‘I text messaged him’ or ‘I texted message him’? I have heard both versions, and they both sound odd. Who makes the rules for a new use of words?”

Dear Linda: We all, collectively, make the rules about new ways to use words. Once upon a time, most of us would have thought the noun phrase “text message” was a silly redundancy, because messages were normally text. Then things like voice mail and alphanumeric pagers came along, so “text message” began to make sense. It’s what’s known as a retronym -- “a word or phrase created because an existing term that was once used alone needs to be distinguished from a term referring to a new development, as ‘acoustic guitar’ in contrast to ‘electric guitar’ or ‘analog watch’ in contrast to ‘digital watch,’” in the American Heritage Dictionary’s definition.

Sending a text message is, of course, a kind of writing -- but just saying “I wrote him” when you mean you sent a text message doesn’t tell the whole story. “Message,” besides being a noun, has occasionally served as a verb since the late 16th century. Here’s how the English author Charles Dickens used it in 1841: “Our people go backwards and forwards ... lettering, and messaging, and fetching and carrying.” In those days, one sent letters by post and messages by messenger. Today there’s nothing wrong with saying you’ve “messaged” someone.

“Text,” too, was used as a verb in the late 16th and 17th centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary labels this use now “rare,” but draft additions that appear in the online edition make clear that it has made a comeback in the past decade. There’s nothing wrong, either, with saying you “texted” someone. Although people do occasionally say they “texted message” someone, that’s an unusual mixture of the two forms. For now, if you want to use proper English, the way to say it remains “I sent him a text message,” but you can expect “I texted him” to become standard, because it’s both clear and efficient.

George Hanna, of Leesburg, Fla., writes: “Why isn’t one member of the National Guard called a ‘National Guardman,’ instead of a ‘National Guardsman’? I have a hunch that the answer is, ‘Just because.’”

Dear George: No, actually, we borrowed “guardsman” from England, where various regiments of the army have long been known as “guards”: “horse guards,” “Coldstream Guards” and so on. You might imagine a member of the guards would be a “Guard.” But no, he’s a “Guardsman” -- except when she’s a “Guardswoman.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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