Do not leave if you can help

« previous post | next post »

Ben Schott cites some amusing items from the 1891 Ango-American Telegraphic Code ("Twittergraphy", 8/2/2009):

(Click on the image for a larger sample.)

The whole code-book is available from Google Books here. I'm sorry to say that Log is not a code-word, but a coded telegram reading "Language Hat" would be interpreted "Do not leave if you can help":

Just as la- words apparently have to do with the concept of "leaving", and ha- words have to do with "help", so lo- words deal with "loss":

So I feel that we've dodged a bullet here — "Language Log" might well have translated as "Do not leave You are a loser". But it didn't.

Unfortunately, no one (as far as I know) has written a utility for decoding messages written in (or at least interpreted according to) this code. (And this would be more fun to do if the code gave plaintext equivalents for a larger fraction of common English words.)

(A list of other commercial code-books from the golden age of telegraphy can be found here, with pointers to scanned copies.)


  1. Jay Lake: [links] Link salad, chum candy edition said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 8:35 am

    […] Language Log on telegraph codes — Weird and funny stuff. […]

  2. rootlesscosmo said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 10:22 am

    I've come across traces, in memoirs and fiction, of a style called "telegraphese," in which "to Chicago" becomes "Chicagoward" and "as soon as possible" becomes "soonest," etc. This was presumably a way of saving money when Western Union charged by the "word," however they defined it (apparently "ASAP," being an abbreviation, was considered four words, hence "soonest.") I've tried to find material on this on the Web but could find only the much more difficult codes described in the post. Anyone know more about this?

    [(myl) There's a genre of telegram-message-shortening jokes, e.g. this, or the Jewish-telegram joke "START WORRYING DETAILS TO FOLLOW". But the jokes presuppose the answer you want, which I can't provide.]

  3. Adrian Bailey said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 11:52 am

    Why use a long word (locutory, logography) for a short one (lose, loss)?

  4. language hat said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

    Why use a long word (locutory, logography) for a short one (lose, loss)?

    It doesn't look to me as if those are equivalents meant to be used; they are set off typographically, and appear to be headings. The idea appears to be "Everything between locutory and logography involves the word lose." On the other hand, this may be as much a code as a money-saving device, so perhaps you would say locutory for lose to hide your meaning.

  5. language hat said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 12:05 pm

    (Damn, I meant to change my username to "Do not leave if you can help.")

  6. John Cowan said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

    UPI and its predecessor United Press was famous for requiring telegraphese: its informal motto, "Downhold expenses", is actually written in this jargon.

    See also the O. Henry story Calloway's Code.

  7. JuanTwoThree said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 2:33 pm

    We've moved from the need to save money with telegraphese to the need to save time with textese.

    I like the anecdote about Cary Grant getting a telegram "HOW OLD CARY GRANT" . He replied "OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU".

    There must have been some confusion between STOP meaning "cease" and STOP meaning "." Was there no punctuation? What was a "?" ?

  8. JuanTwoThree said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

    Or rather "OLD CARY GRANT FINE STOP HOW YOU STOP" I suppose.

  9. Nick Lamb said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

    This material seems old enough to be out of copyright. If so, Project Gutenberg might be interested in transcribing one or more of these books, or they may have done so already. And again, if so, it would be available as somewhat formatted ASCII suitable for trivial processing into an amusing dictionary of the kind conceived by Mark.

    I'm not interested in manually typing tens of thousands of these definitions, but if that donkey work is done and someone points me at it I'm quite happy to knock together a web site where visitors can enter words or sequences thereof and get them translated. I already have hosting for various other projects, and it's no more than an hour's work I should think. A suitable contact email address is used to post this comment.

  10. Why I ‘heart’ the Language Log « Rethorykal Questions said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 10:57 pm

    […] 3 August, 2009 by rethoryke Because where else would I learn about special code words in early telegraphy? […]

  11. peter said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 4:39 am

    Aha! Now I know how we can fill all those hundreds of not-yet-allocated status response codes in Hyper-Text Transfer Protocol!

  12. Akma » Will Not Cause Improvement In Rates said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 6:47 am

    […] Language Log points to the Anglo-American Telegraphic Code (via Google Books), a guide to the code by which telegraph users could abbreviate their messages, conceal their communications from casual observation, and save money on per-word charges. Since Language Log checked their blog title and came up with “Do not leave if you can help,” I first thought to see what “Random Thoughts” signifies in this code. As it turns out, “thought” is not a code word; presumably it’s too useful as a word in and of itself. “Random,” however, signifies “Will not cause improvement in rate(s).”   Apart from the goofing-around value of this codebook, it underscores my argument about meaning not being an immanent quality in words. Everything depends on the network of expectations and conventions that govern expressions; if I were a Victorian telegrapher, “random” could mean that someone is inflexible about a tariff. Once the conventions that govern telegraphy fade away, as per-word charges drop and other communication media prevail over the telegraph, fewer (and eventually “no”) communicators recognized that usage any longer — but nothing changed in the intrinsic qualities of the word.   The Code Book gives as an introductory example the sentence, “Legend attainder abduce viary sadr tailzie kasita dombeya thorn andarac” — which means, “In reply to your letter of 1st of August, I wish to say that if he will make a reasonable abatement I will consider the matter. What is your view? Can it be done safely? Let me know as soon as possible. If it can be done make the best terms possible. Answer by the Anglo-American Code.” To this, I have only one reply: “Random!” […]

  13. Etl World News | DO NOT LEAVE IF YOU CAN HELP. said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 11:56 pm

    […] Liberman at the Log has a post on Ben Schott's NY Times op-ed piece "Twittergraphy," which features telegraphic […]

  14. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 1:51 am

    Slight impediment to using the text: there's a fine "hand scan" on page 403 of the Google Books copy.

  15. Terry Collmann said,

    August 9, 2009 @ 12:38 pm

    As a Londoner I object very strongly to the imputation in the codebook listed above.

  16. Bob Ray said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 6:04 am

    My favorite bit of telegraphic economy is: "Upshove job asswards."

  17. Jonathan Soma said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 7:38 am

    I used Mechanical Turk to get most of the book transcribed, so now we've got a translator:

    (You can also just browse the code book entries here)

  18. Linklog: Edmund Wilson regrets, a telegrapher encodes, and more said,

    March 5, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

    […] Language Log, following the New York Times, considers the charms of telegraphic language. The subjects covered in the codebook discussed are impressively wide-ranging; I want to know […]

RSS feed for comments on this post