Fry's English Delight on Radio 4 this week (listen for another week here) was devoted to brevity, even terseness. Stephen Fry is a well-known fan of Twitter, and he began by discussing the suitability of English to Twitter. The average English word, he said, has five letters (this is probably true if you are talking about the base form of words; I have access to a very large database of words used in crosswords, and there are twice as many 7- and 8-letter words as 5-letter words, although that is because suffixes such as -ing and -ed are included). This means that even speakers of other languages use English words in their tweets because they're shorter -- compare 'now' and maintenant, for instance.
Guests on the programme included British haiku poet Caroline Gourlay, the master of one-liners Tim Vine and former editor of The Sun Kelvin McKenzie. Newspaper headlines need short headlines, and, among journalists themselves, it seems that the shorter and pithier the headline, the more successful. Certainly some of the most memorable Sun headlines have been very short, including the much-criticised "Gotcha!" after the 1980s sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War, and the headline accompanying a picture of the Prince and Princess of Wales in front of the Taj Mahal before their divorce, namely "The Glums" (a reference to a 1950s radio comedy show family). Apart from the jokes, headlines often use short words that are rarely heard in ordinary conversation eg "MPs in bid to axe ...".
Fry and his guests conceded that it is far more difficult to write a shorter headline, or a shorter article or text, than a long, rambling one. As Mark Twain famously wrote (in a reply to this telegram request from his publisher "NEED 2-PAGE SHORT STORY TWO DAYS"), "NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES".
Pop songs often use abbreviations, too, as there are often only three minutes in which to get across the sentiments. Laura Barton of The Guardian spoke on this subject in the Fry programme earlier. Thus we find in pop songs words -- often made up -- that encapsulate a whole idea in a few letters. 'Wop-bop-a-loop-a', for example, from Little Richard's Tutti Frutti captured the essence of the new rock'n'roll era, and seemed to say to listeners 'stop what you're doing and dance!'.
If 'words' like 'wop-bop-a-loop-a' summed up the 1950s, what words sum up the 'noughties'. Broadcaster and technology commentator Alex Krotoski felt 'meme', coined by Richard Dawkins, encapsulated the Zeitgeist.
Listen to Fry's English Delight on BBC iPlayer here.