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."

No comments: