Sunday, February 12, 2006


A follow-up to the earlier post about anachronistic terms like telegraph. It occurred to me that another somewhat linguistically oriented fallout from the days of the telegraph, as suggested by the definition of telegraphic, is the style in which telegraphs came to be written. Telegraphs were charged by the word, so brevity became the goal, with some cleverness in reducing word count. A page on the history of the telegraph describes telegraphic language this way:
Most telegraph companies charged by the word, so customers had good reason to be as brief as possible. This gave telegram prose a snappy, brisk style, and the frequent omission of pronouns and articles often became almost poetically ambiguous. Telegrams were almost always brief, pointed, and momentous in a way unmatched by any other form of communication.
(For the curious, this page from the Irish Telegraph Office details the very exacting way in which chargeable words were calculated.[1])

This page has an improbable story that nonetheless illustrates telegraphic style:
I recently heard an account of a foreign correspondent for the BBC in the heyday of telegraphy. After long silence from the reporter, the BBC wired him to ask: NEWS? The reporter wired back: UNNEWS. The BBC, seeing no point in paying him if he wasn't working, retorted: UNNEWS, UNJOB. To which the reporter replied: UPSTICK JOB ASSWARD. (I've also heard that last line attributed to a telegram from Hemingway; I assume it's apocryphal. But it makes a good story.)
I found online a booklet from 1928 titled "How To Write Telegrams Properly" that provides the following guidelines for reducing word count. (As an aside, I find it amusing to contemplate the difference in style for how this same information would be presented today.)
Naturally, there is a right way and a wrong way of wording telegrams. The right way is economical, the wrong way, wasteful. If the telegram is packed full of unnecessary words, words which might be omitted without impairing the sense of the message, the sender has been guilty of economic waste. Not only has he failed to add anything to his message, but he has slowed it up by increasing the time necessary to transmit it. He added to the volume of traffic from a personal and financial point of view, he has been wasteful because he has spent more for his telegram than was necessary. In the other extreme, he may have omitted words necessary to the sense, thus sacrificing clearness in his eagerness to save a few cents.

A man high in American business life has been quoted as remarking that elimination of the word "please" from all telegrams would save the American public millions of dollars annually. Despite this apparent endorsement of such procedure, however, it is unlikely that the public will lightly relinquish the use of this really valuable word. "Please" is to the language of social and business intercourse what art and music are to everyday, humdrum existence. Fortunes might be saved by discounting the manufacture of musical instruments and by closing the art galleries, but no one thinks of suggesting such a procedure. By all means let us retain the word "please" in our telegraphic correspondence.
Another aspect of telegraphic language was that punctuation might be written out, leading to a style of message like SEND MONEY STOP . Older people who see that might immediately recognize it as telegraph-like, but I suppose younger generations would not know the genesis of this odd style. The booklet also addresses itself to the punctuation thing:
This word "stop" may have perplexed you the first time you encountered it in a message. Use of this word in telegraphic communications was greatly increased during the World War, when the Government employed it widely as a precaution against having messages garbled or misunderstood, as a result of the misplacement or emission of the tiny dot or period.

Officials felt that the vital orders of the Government must be definite and clear cut, and they therefore used not only the word "stop," to indicate a period, but also adopted the practice of spelling out "comma," "colon," and "semi-colon." The word "query" often was used to indicate a question mark. Of all these, however, "stop" has come into most widespread use, and vaudeville artists and columnists have employed it with humorous effect, certain that the public would understand the allusion in connection with telegrams. It is interesting to note, too, that although the word is obviously English it has come into general use In all languages that are used in telegraphing or cabling.
What does all of this remind us of? Texting of course, whose highly reduced orthography shares a couple of features with classic telegraphic style. One is the desire to keep things short (though not so much because of per-word charges as because of the limited UI). But the more important motivation is speed of entry, given -- hey, just like telegraphs! -- comparatively primitive means of creating text. (It's amusing to contemplate the picture of a telegraph operator keying out a message while driving down the freeway.)

And on a more thematically appropriate topic (for this blog), I am also very pleased to find a note that illustrates that the objections to evolving English have been with us always:
The word “telegram” was coined in 1852, when it first appeared in the Albany Evening Journal of April 6th. E. P. Smith, of Rochester, New York, wrote the following letter to the newspaper: “A friend desires us to give notice that he will ask leave … to introduce a new word…. It is telegram instead of telegraphic dispatch, or telegraphic communication.” Pedantic scholars opposed this horrible new word at first. To use proper Greek, the word should have been telegrapheme. But Americans preferred the catchier sound of telegram, and within a few years the new term had become standard.

[1]A (sort of non-PC, sorry) joke I found about word counts:

A young woman had a boy, and of course, there was great rejoicing. The husband wanted to send a telegram to his mother. So he took a piece of paper and wrote down, "Fanetshka happily delivered son."

He showed the telegram to the wife's father, who took a look and said, "Well, you aren't a businessman. Telegrams need to be short. Just take a look at all the unnecessary words you've got here.

First, Fanetshka. What do you mean, Fanetshka? Obviously, Fanetshka. Would you go and send telegrams about women you don't know?

Second, happily. How else? Not happily? If there had been (God forbid!) any danger, would you be running and sending a telegram?

And further, delivered? What else? The kid dropped out of the sky?

And again, why bother writing 'son'? Of course, if you're happy enough to send a telegram, it's a son. If it had been a daughter, you wouldn't be sending a telegram."

Friday, February 10, 2006

Super-exciting verbing!

My colleague David sent around a comment on one of the many breathless announcements we get at work. I'll just quote the text and his comments.

Here's an excerpt:
Several beta programs for XXXX are already underway and we are making great progress, but we still need your help to customer-ready these services. [...] If you're already dogfooding some of our services – thank you. If not, we need your help [...] Below you’ll find more details on each of the betas you can trial [...]

Here's David:
Obviously, dogfooding is old hat. But I've never seen customer-ready as a verb! Though if it said "to ready these services for customers" or something like that, I wouldn't have noticed. A noun stack converted to verb! And then, the tour de force: trial as a transitive verb! Cool. I'm super excited to cutting-edge these locutions!

Update After our initial super-excitement! had died down a little, David and I chatted about this. As with most things linguistic, these locutions are not random and do not come out of thin air. (Right, they come out of thick air.) We noted, for example, that to ready is an established verb, so to customer-ready isn't perhaps as much of a stretch as it might seem on first hearing. And we poked a little bit at what possible subtle differences in coloration might obtain between to trial and (for example) to test. We agreed that testing is a somewhat generic verb, whereas trial has a slight connotation of to try out -- we do not, for instance, buy shampoo in "test-size" bottles. So there is some difference there, which the author(s) were apparently trying to capture.

We also noted that this type of unabashed repurposing of words is for the most part not done by those of us who think about every (well, many of the) words we write. "That can't be right!" is probably not a thought that the author of the announcement entertained when writing the verbs in question. David pointed out that the announcement was, unusually, correct in every other way -- grammar, punctuation, verb agreement, and many of the other niceties that are often considered secondary to the many! exciting! things! that the announcements have to say. So clearly the text had been reviewed, or at least, put together by someone who is not inexperienced in basic English writing skills.

Another Update (2/15/06) Saul forwarded an email from Comcast that announced "Comcast would like to invite you to trial a Beta version of one of our latest communication products, Comcast Video Instant Messenger." It's a trend!

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Open the pod word doors, please, Hal

Briefest post yet, another cranalysis, tee-hee:

iPod -> podcast -> podfade (to stop podcasting)
                -> ?
                -> ?

(I now have it on good authority (Benjamin Zimmer, also Yaron) that Google doesn't do stem searches, so searching for pod* won't get me other such variants. Hence readers are invited to submit examples.)

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Telegraphing the end (cc me on that)

An article in notes that Western Union has discontinued its telegram service. A fellow editor (JimP) and I were musing on vocabulary that is based in outmoded technologies. In this instance, there are at least a couple of words:
  • to telegraph (AHD: To make known (a feeling or an attitude, for example) by nonverbal means: telegraphed her derision with a smirk ). Also, as Jim added, "to reveal one's intentions without meaning to (a boxer who telegraphs his punches, f'rinstance). "
  • telegraphic (AHD: Brief or concise: a telegraphic style of writing. )
Jim had earlier sent me some terms he'd encountered while working with telephone-related software. He noted that the following phone-ish terms, while still in use, had essentially lost their literal sense:
  • On the hook, off the hook
  • Hang up
  • And as he said, "Really, even dial tone."
To which I add that to dial itself is a term that references obsolete technology.

Some time back, I'd been writing about software used to send emails (that is, "e-mail messages"). The two terms cc and bcc are still in wide use -- I can see them in Outlook 2003 right now. But how many people these days have ever held in their hands the "carbon" part of "carbon copy"? Only us old folks.

I would be surprised if there isn't a term for this kind of anachronism; the phenomenon happens all the time, and not just in high-tech. It's slightly odd, though, to watch it happen within one's adult life.