“I hope this email finds you well”

We’ve all experienced that annoying beginning to an email (or some variation thereof – “I trust you’re well” is particularly egregious – why bring trust into it?). It is, I think, mostly an email convention, for reasons that escape me – why can’t emails be more like Whatsapps, of Facebook DMs, or another other mode of modern communication, where you just get straight to the “Yo wassup, drinks later?”. Maybe (and I’m conjecturing on the fly here) emails are stuck in some grey zone between the “old” and “new”, where the excitement of immediacy took precedence over common sense.

I mean, yes, there were faxes before emails in the whole “immediacy” game, but imagine standing over a fax machine watching it laboriously pixelate a message that begins with “I trust this fax finds you well”, and not kind of freaking out thinking of what’s coming next while you wait for the rest of the thing to materialise: why wouldn’t I be? Shouldn’t I be? We didn’t even have Dr. Google to address panic attacks back in those days. (It’s nothing, calm down.)

As for telegrams in the pre-fax days, these obviously would have been a terrible place to employ such a thoughtless and empty piece of rhetoric. To wit, have a look at what The Telegraph lists as ten of the most famous telegrams in history, and imagine they each started with “I trust this telegram finds you well”:

Dr Crippen, an American-born homeopath, was one of the first criminals to be convicted with the help of the telegram. Following the murder of his wife Cora at their home in London in January 1910, Dr Crippen and his lover escaped on a ferry to Canada but were spotted by the ship’s captain, who sent a telegram to Scotland Yard just before the ship lost reception. A police officer took a faster ship to Canada, and arrested Dr Crippen on arrival. He was hanged at Pentonville Prison on November 23 1910.

Samuel Morse sent what is thought to be the first telegram, on May 24 1844. Morse sent a message from Washington to Baltimore saying: “What hath God wrought?”

When American author Mark Twain heard that his obituary had been published, he sent a telegram from London in 1897 saying: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”.

The shortest telegram in the English language was from the Irish writer Oscar Wilde. He was living in Paris and he cabled his publisher in Britain to see how his new book was doing. The message read: “?” The publisher cabled back: “!”

The first successful flight, by the Wright brothers, was announced by telegram from North Carolina in 1903. “Successful four flights Thursday morning.”

Early on April 15 1912, the Titanic is believed to have sent its last wireless message. “SOS SOS CQD CQD Titanic. Wa are sinking fast. Passengers are being put into boats. Titanic.”

America was spurred to join the First World War after the interception of the Zimmermann Telegram. Berlin sent the telegram on January 17 1917 to Mexico, urging the Mexicans to join the war as Germany’s ally against the USA. President Wilson, who had previously wanted to keep America out of the war, then used the telegram to gain support for American intervention.

American journalist Robert Benchley sent a celebrated telegram to his editor at the New Yorker, Harold Ross, upon arriving in Venice for the first time. “Streets full of water. Please advise.”

Perhaps one of the most famous historical telegrams is one sent by the head of the Navy on September 3 1939. It read simply: “Winston is back.”

Physicist Edward Teller sent a telegram in 1952 to colleagues at Los Alamos about the first hydrogen bomb detonation, saying: “It’s a boy”.

John F. Kennedy used to joke during his 1960 presidential campaign that he had just received a telegram from his father. “Dear Jack: Don’t buy one more vote than necessary. I’ll be damned if I pay for a landslide.”

Back to my conjecturing, perhaps the more acute sense of immediacy when email first hit the scene spawned this ridiculous habit as a way to atone for suddenly landing with a full body of text in someone’s inbox on their personal computer (we didn’t always have them!), possibly even late at night (cue the “I’m sorry to email you so late at night”, forgetting that read-receipts are so old-school that no one should ever need to know that you secretly read the email on your phone while watching Scandal at 10.30pm and chose to ignore it till the morning because it was too annoying, or simply began like *that* – or actually just read it in the morning, if they’re the kind of person who can watch Scandal without the distraction of checking their email every five minutes. And whisky).

Well, who knows, but the worst thing I encountered today was a student who signed off an email with that platitude. As I may have said on Twitter,

I understand that not everyone is a fan of George Orwell’s (in my opinion) brilliant essay on Politics and the English Language” – in the Guardian, Steven Poole claims that ‘Much of it is the kind of nonsense screed against linguistic pet hates that anyone today might compose in a green-text email to the newspapers’ – but I submit that the sentence I’m railing against here is a prime example of the worst use of language, English or not. It’s not ungrammatical, nor unnecessarily “flowery”, and it doesn’t mix metaphors, or put apostrophes in the wrong place. It’s just meaningless and lazy, which unless you’re having a really shitty day or slept poorly last night (I do sympathise!), does a disservice to everyone:

A man may take himself to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts. (George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”)

No one likes to be surrounded by people with foolish or lazy thoughts any more than they want to be accused of having them themselves. So let’s all ovary up and speak and write as we would like to be spoken and written to.

Drinks later then?

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