I am one of those who took far longer than the average communicative human to drop the comma after “Dear John” in email. I still have to force myself to use abbreviation in texts and have only recently begun to insert, heaven forbid, the odd smiley face here and there. But in my passionate linguist’s mind I know this belligerence is irrational. I accept that these evolutions of language are facilitating communication. They are the means by which living languages remain alive. It is the subject for another post, but I don’t consider it a coincidence that it is a mongrel, bastard, pilfering, unregulated language such as English that has evolved into a global lingua franca. French, with its evolution kept resolutely in check by the Academie, never stood a chance.
So with the courage of a new year’s resolution for this science-fiction date of 2014, I will focus on the fact that neither pen nor paper is actually involved here. If I can’t remove the trace of these words from cyberspace, I can at least remove them from view at the click of a mouse.
So let’s begin. And what better place to start than with the putting of pen to paper. This is an expression that has become archaic in the lifetime of my teenage step kids. In a few of short decades, the pen has lost its primacy as the weapon of choice for the average literate person setting down their thoughts.
My two-year old daughter loves pens. She wants to hold and write with every one she sees. She loves to draw and “write” on paper but the only time she sees me use a pen is to sign the attendance sheet at her crèche. In her life, she will certainly spend more time writing on a keyboard or tablet than in an exercise book. Yet she may well use this expression “to put pen to paper”. No better one has yet emerged to replace it and any one that does will take generations to acquire equivalent weight and meaning.
Although a bit of googling shows that the phrase “to put pen to paper” doesn’t feature often in idiom lists, its meaning is undeniably more than just literal and was so well before the pen was displaced by the keyboard, the stylus and the finger. It means to articulate one’s thoughts in a written form, to commit them to a medium that can be shared, to set them down. The most common definition offered is the literal “to write on paper” (for example in Free Dictionary by Farlex). Another school sees it mainly as “to sign on the dotted line”, as in this Daily Mirror headline from November 2013: Brendan Rodgers wants Jordan Ibe to put pen to paper on a new deal at Liverpool. But Free Dictionary’s other definition, also given by the Cambridge Dictionary online, “to start to write something”, is already much broader and moving into the idiomatic.
A short glance at the definition of “pen” takes us further: “an instrument for writing regarded as a means of expression” (Free Dictionary again), “a writer or author” as in “a hired pen”, “a style of writing”. Then there are the quotes: "Tyranny has no enemy so formidable as the pen" (William Cobbett); "The pen is mightier than the sword" (Edward Bulwer-Lytton Richelieu). These refer to that awesome power which delayed the start of my blogging career. To write is to commit yourself. Unless of course you are texting, or sending an email with a smiley face…
So I think my daughter will use this phrase, just as we still say someone “has an axe to grind”, though I for one have never seen one ground, or “knows the ropes”, though they have never set foot in a boat. Pens have as indelible a place in our cultural history as axes and sailing ships and will be remembered in the language they have spread. We just happen to be the generation that has seen their physical demise.
A very special pen, given to me by my husband, who knows how to use such things of beauty.