Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Daniel Defoe, Spam and the Coming Apocalypse

The other day - for reasons too complicated to go into here and now - I found myself glancing through Daniel Defoe's 1726 little page-turner, "The Complete English Tradesman". Chapter Two of this useful handbook is entitled "The Tradesman's Writing Letters" and contains a number of good and bad examples of business letter-writing style. Amongst them is a letter written by a younf tradesman in the country to a wholesale-man in London, which goes as follows:

'SIR--The destinies having so appointed it, and my dark stars concurring, that I, who by nature was framed for better things, shouldbe put out to a trade, and the gods having been so propitious to me in the time of my servitude, that at length the days are expired, and I am launched forth into the great ocean of business, I thought fit to acquaint you, that last month I received my fortune, which, by my father's will, had been my due two years past, at which time I arrived to man's estate, and became major, whereupon I have taken a house in one of the principal streets of the town of----, where I am entered upon my business, and hereby let you know that I shall have occasion for the goods hereafter mentioned, which you may send to me by the carrier.'

As I read it I thought there was something vaguely familiar about both the style and the content and eventually I realised what it was. I receive two or three messages like this each week, normally from the unfortunate widow of the late Manager of the National Bank of Nigeria. What Defoe had cleverly discovered was spam. I noted the far-sightedness of the great man and read on. Not two paragraphs later I found this condemnation of twentyfirst century texting.

"I can by no means approve of studied abbreviations, and leaving out the needful copulatives of speech in trading letters; they are to an extreme affected; no beauty to the style, but, on the contrary, a deformity of the grossest nature."

The words fell like an apostles' blessing on a man who had minutes earlier received a text from his son saying "kan u pick me up at half 10". Was there no end to the man's predictive qualities? I amrrently working my way through the other 26 chapters of the book in search of a clue to the coming apocalypse.

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