Telephone or telegraph?

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There's a controversy over whether President Xi Jinping called President-elect Donald Trump to congratulate him on his victory in the November 8th election.  The problem is summarized in this passage from The Economist:

Chinese officials pay obsessive attention to ensuring the Communist Party’s line is reflected accurately by the country’s main media. But Mr Trump’s victory caught them in a muddle. Several outlets said Mr Xi had telephoned his compliments to Mr Trump. But Mr Trump said he had spoken to or heard from most foreign leaders—except Mr Xi. The phone call did not take place until six days after the vote. In most countries such a mistake would be insignificant, the result of sloppy reporting or ambiguous phrasing (in Mandarin, the phrase “sent a congratulatory note” can also mean “congratulate by phone”). In China it suggested that media overlords were not sure what line to take.

(emphasis added)

From The Economist, November 19th, 2016, "China" section, page 59 of British edition.

"Weighing up Telangpu:  A victory for China?  Some Chinese see much to like in Mr Trump" (11/19/16)

It was Geoff Pullum who called the matter to my attention (Lane Greene, deputy books editor and language columnist, tells me that GKP casts an eagle eye over the phraseology of each issue, and lets them know if there is anything amiss).

The question boils down to:

1. the ambiguity of zhìdiàn 致电

a. zhì 致 ("send / convey / extend")

b. diàn 电 ("electric" –> "tele-", which could be either "telegram" or "telephone")

2. whether Xi's message was referred to simply as zhìdiàn 致电 ("sent a telegram; telephoned") or as zhì hèdiàn 致贺电 ("sent a congratulatory telegram; telephoned to congratulate")

The actual headline of the official Xinhua News Agency article reporting Xi's communication to Trump reads as follows:

"Xí Jìnpíng zhìdiàn zhùhè Tèlǎngpǔ dāngxuǎn Měiguó zǒngtǒng"


"Xi Jinping sent a telegram / telephoned to congratulate Trump on his election as President of the United States"

This article is dated November 9, 2016 at 19:25:55.

The article itself refers to a zhìhè diàn 致贺电 ("congratulatory tele[message]"); the headline is more ambiguous.

One of my informants from China interprets the headline and the article together thus:

Based on the title and the content, it is clear that Xi telegraphed, or sent a message through telephone but not by Xi himself, to congratulate Trump.

The UP MEDIA website tries to explain away the misunderstanding as the result of a typo, saying that zhì hèdiàn 致贺电 ("[sent] a congratulatory tele(message)" was intended, and that can only mean zhùhè diànwén 祝賀電文 ("written tele(message) of congratulations" — we still don't know if that is a telegram, a telex, or exactly what), but that it was mistyped (cuòwù… dǎchéng 错误…打成) as zhìdiàn 致电 ("sent a tele[gram]; tele[phoned]").

There is another article from Xinhua News Agency five days later (November 14, 2016 at 14:17:57):

Xí Jìnpíng tóng Měiguó dāngxuǎn zǒngtǒng Tèlǎngpǔ tōng diànhuà


Xi Jinping spoke to President-elect Trump by telephone

In this instance, it is clear that Xi communicated with Trump via telephone, which is also shown in the content of the article.

See also this NYT article:

"Trump and Xi Jinping, China’s Leader, Hold Cordial First Phone Call" (11/14/16 — note the date)

One could also unambiguously say "diànhuà liánxì 电话联系" ("contact by telephone"), but that sounds almost clinical or mercantile.  On the other hand, one could say gěi XX dǎ diànhuà 给XX打电话 ("gave XX a [telephone] call; telephoned XX"), but that would sound too colloquial and casual for formal news reporting.

The usual way to express this in adequately formal journalistic language that I encounter regularly is the following:

XX yǔ/tóng YY tōng diànhuà XX与/同YY通电话 ("XX telephoned YY")

Where things seem to have gone awry in the case under discussion (Xi contacting Trump) is that the copy editor was striving for a more pretentious register and felt obliged to use the stuffy word zhì 致 ("send / convey / extend"), and then wanted a literary sounding disyllabic expression, zhìdiàn 致电 ("sent / conveyed a tele[message]"), without specifying whether the message was a telegram, telephone call, or some other type of message sent across a distance.

I must say that my default instinct for interpreting zhìdiàn 致电 is always "send a telegram", and that is true also for all native speakers of Chinese whom I consulted, except for those who have been in China most of the time for the past decade or so, or who are in very close contact with colleagues and news sources in China.  For the latter, zhìdiàn 致电 can mean either "send a telegram" or "to telephone".  People who haven't had much to do with the PRC for the past decade or so think it sounds strange to interpret zhìdiàn 致电 as anything other then "conveyed / extended a message via telegram", in any event, some sort of written message sent across a distance — at least the ones I asked feel that way.  Conversely, those who have had a lot of contact with the PRC within the last decade or so even expressed the opinion that they hear zhìdiàn 致电 meaning "telephoned" more often than as meaning "telegraphed".

Now I have a question for everyone:  are people (including governments) still using telegraphy for long distance communication?  The only time I see it being used nowadays is for Western Union money transfers.  But does Western Union, the former telegraph industry giant, itself still rely on telegraphy for the transactions of its financial services empire?

[Thanks to Joel Martinsen, David Moser, Brendan O'Kane, Maiheng Dietrich, Liwei Jiao, Fangyi Cheng, and Yixue Yang]


  1. Rubrick said,

    November 29, 2016 @ 5:40 pm

    Western Union sent its last telegram in 2006:

    I'm not sure the precise distinction is between a telegram and any message sent by telegraph, but I'd be shocked if Western Union or anyone else was using telgraphy for financial transfers. (Among other things, such a method must be extremely insecure.)

  2. Bruce said,

    November 29, 2016 @ 6:11 pm

    The word telegram would surely mean in this case a diplomatic cable, an encrypted communication from Beijing (in this case) to the PRC embassy in Washington or the UN Mission in NYC, with an instruction to deliver the message to someone [Trump], or maybe less directly through the US State Dept.

  3. Stephen said,

    November 29, 2016 @ 6:14 pm

    The most significant method for financial transactions, certainly for international ones is SWIFT

    There are a plethora of national services:
    – In the UK BACS & CHAPS
    – In the US CHIPS & Fedwire

    Those are mostly for larger valued payments. However in the UK CHAPS (normally c. £30 per transaction) is used as the backbone for the Faster Payments Service
    which gives same day clearing of payments (early next day for late in the day payments).

  4. DCA said,

    November 30, 2016 @ 1:04 am

    Yes, I think in this case "telegram" comes from diplomacy's attachment to "cable" — which used to be an actual telegram that would usually have traveled internationally via an undersea telegraph cable. Now (I believe) it simply means "text sent using electricity" (as opposed to mail in a diplomatic pouch). So if Language Log and I were diplomats, this comment would be a cable.

  5. Bathrobe said,

    November 30, 2016 @ 3:05 am

    When I lived in China (until recently) 致电 in signage meant 'to telephone' because it was often (usually?) accompanied by a telephone number.

  6. WSM said,

    November 30, 2016 @ 5:58 am

    致电 these days is always formal expression for "telephoned"… the 电 has simply been reinterpreted as 电话 instead of 电报. Since the abbreviated expression was already in the language, albeit for an antiquated form of technology, why not adapt it ;)

    I'm not really sure the editor was "striving for a more pretentious register" as opposed to "striving to use fewer words than 和…通电话", particularly for this kind of headline language.

  7. BZ said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 1:32 pm

    Not sure about telegraphy, but when I was still working for a banking software company, around 2004 there was a big commotion about Verizon (which then-recently acquired MCI) discontinuing the last surviving telex service. Many banks from smaller nations were connected to the rest of the world (and to us) by telex alone. Fortunately somebody (I don't remember who) stepped in to provide MCI emulation.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    December 2, 2016 @ 11:58 pm

    The following three locutions are the usual way to say "telephone (vb.); gave somebody a (telephone) call; called somebody by telephone".
    A yǔ B tōng diànhuà A与B通电话 ("A and B spoke to each other by telephone")

    AB tōng diànhuà AB 通电话 (A and B connected / contacted each other by telephone")

    A gēn B dǎ diànhuà A 跟B打电话 (A called B by telephone")

    The first two forms, which use tōng diànhuà 通电话 ("connect / contact by telephone"), are considered more formal than the third. They may be influenced by Taiwan and Hong Kong usage.

    Examples in today's press that illustrate the first two may be found here and here.

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