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(e)Xpressive markup language?

by Geoff Hart

Previously published, in a different form, as: Hart, G.J. 1998. (e)Xpressive Markup Language? Intercom, June:44.

[Background note: HTML, the markup language for Web documents, is a simplified subset of SGML that lacks strong content definition but is much simpler to write. XML  attempts to combine the benefits of both tagging languages.]

The official XML standard is now in place, and—astonishingly—Microsoft and Netscape have largely agreed on the standard, but thorny issues remain unresolved. For example, conveying the emotional tone of a Web page has, up until now, been impossible with HTML, and the XML standard fails to address this issue. As an interim solution, developers have proposed several new tags to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Take, for example, the eternal problem of indicating that you’re expressing sly humor rather than an honest opinion. The lack of a way to indicate this has led to flame wars in most online forums, and these could have been avoided by an appropriate use of tags. “Smileys” such as :) represent one solution, but defeat the purpose of XML by emphasizing form over content. The obvious solution would be a tag that warns Web surfers not to take a comment seriously. The new tag, <Fe>, marks the beginning of the "ironic" text; the matching close tag, </Fe>, denotes the end of the text. (The chemical symbol for iron is Fe, which serves as a mnemonic aid for “irony”.)

The perennially touchy issue of profanity can be resolved similarly. The standard Internet euphemism for a fecal expletive is currently sh*t, but apart from being overly cute, this tactic doesn’t work in XML. This time, the solution is the <Cu> tag; Cu is the chemical symbol for copper, and the Greek word for feces is copros, so the <Cu> tag clearly identifies sh*tty language. Browsers equipped with appropriate filtering software can automatically replace <Cu>-tagged text with @#$%^*&@! or other user-defined alternatives. Here’s a partial list of the other useful tags that have been proposed for inclusion in the XML standard:

<Ar> = This site has moved to a new URL (i.e., “we aregon”).

<As> = Apologies… we really feel like an “arse-nick”.

<B> = This text only interests few readers (“quit now if we're boron you”).

<Ba> = A call to action (i.e., “let’s bury 'em”).

<Br–> = A cliché alert (i.e., “this one’s a real bromide”).

<Cr> = Admission of an error (i.e, “we screwed up, and we’re eating crow-mium”).

<Cs> = End of file warning (from the Latin "cease-ium").

<F> = Humor alert for those with weak hearts (i.e., “rolling on the fluor laughing”).

<Fr> = The honest truth (i.e., a frank-ium opinion).

<Ge> = An off-topic digression (i.e., “this isn’t really germanium to the topic”).

<Ho> = A link to the table of contents page (i.e., “go home-ium”).

<In> = This represents the literal word of God (i.e., in-deum).

<Kr> = This text is protected via “enkrypton”.

<Mg> = Gracious acceptance of other viewpoints (i.e., magnanimesium). See also <Ti>.

<Ni> = A survey question or an XML form (i.e., “a penny for your thoughts”, adjusted for inflation = 5 cents = 1 nickel).

<Pd> = Bragging  (i.e., “what a performance… we should have rented the Palladium!”).

<Pr> = A need for positive feedback (i.e., praise-or-die-mium: “We’re feeling so unappreciated we may go postal.”).

<Si> = An ethics alert, along the lines of “if you’re dumb enough to fall for this, please leave us your credit card before you go” (i.e., it's a silly con).

<Ti> = Our critics don’t disturb us (i.e., titan-ium: “We're too big to let that bother us”). See also <Mg>.

<Xe> = A WWW literature citation (e.g., “this one was first xenon copyediting–l”).

<W> = Just kidding (i.e., tungsten-in-cheek humor).

<Zn> = A legal disclaimer (i.e., “zink before you try zis at home”).

<Zr> = Trivial or useless information (i.e., zircon-ium: “This may not really be a gem of wisdom, but it was free, wasn't it?”).

Sadly, problems have already begun to arise. For example, although W3C has approved the <Fe> (irony) tag as part of the XML standard, Netscape and Microsoft have already developed proprietary extensions. Thus, Netscape denotes gentle sarcasm as <Fe2+> and an outright facetious remark as <Fe3+>, whereas Microsoft prefers <Fe+2> and <Fe+3>, respectively. To ensure that your humor works equally well in all browsers, we recommend that you stick with <Fe> until both browsers accommodate the other’s preferred coding.

And in case you were wondering... <Fe> (<W>), and it's time for me to <Cs>, since this isn't <Ge> and I don't really want to be <As>. <Ar>.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to John Renish for hinting at the possibilities of an elemental tag language, David Klein for suggesting the possibility of shades of Fe, and (with my modifications) Peter Trumper and Matthew Stevens for suggestions on an earlier version of this list (designed for e-mail) that first appeared in the copyediting–l discussion group.)

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