Monday, August 3, 2009

The Soul of Wit

Three-quarter length portrait of Jack Binnes, wireless operator,
using a telegraph machine at a desk in a room in Chicago, Illinois.

Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0054177.
Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society.

I love Ben Schott's column on the op-ed page of today's New York Times. Mr. Miscellany notes that the "restrictions on articulation" imposed by Twitter's 140-character (and SMS's 160-character) limits are nothing new, having been preceded in the 19th century by privacy and cost concerns associated with sending telegrams (telegraph carriers apparently often charged more for words longer than 15 characters or for telegrams longer than 10 words). These concerns led to the spread of telegram code books, which contained lists of various phrases reduced to a single word.

Telegraph machine in operation at The New York Herald in 1900.

Just looking at the examples Schott provides from The Anglo-American Telegraphic Code, published in 1891, provides a pretty good sense of what America was like at that point in time. I mean, a society that constructs shorthand for phrases like "A battle is reported to have begun" ("Barracan"), "The prisoner(s) will probably be condemned" ("Confuter"), and "You must send my allowance immediately" ("Amphimacer") only exists at a very particular time and place in history. A few more examples below; see the whole list here.

Abandonee: Abandoned in a sinking condition.
: Cattle are scarce.

: A crisis seems to be approaching.
Crisp: Can you recommend to me a good female cook?

: Has been dead a long time.

: Destroyed by a cyclone.
Emication: The epidemic has broken out again.
Foretold: Abundant reason to be frightened.
Geyser: Do not pay in gold.
Hurst: The hunting expedition will not set out.

: Stocks have reached panic prices.

And, my personal favorite:
Orangeman: What is the opinion on the street?

Also this, while we're on the subject of words and 19th-century America:

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