Telegraphic language

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Following up on various recent discussions of how Twitter and other new communications media may be affecting the English language, I'd like to draw your attention to a well-reasoned consideration of this issue from an earier era: Robert Lincoln O'Brien, "Machinery and English Style", The Atlantic Monthly 1904:

In every age since written language began, rhetorical forms have been to a considerable extent influenced by the writing materials and implements which were available for man's use. This is a familiar observation in studies of the past. Is it not, then, time that somebody inquired into the effects upon the form and substance of our present-day language of the veritable maze of devices which have come into widely extended use in recent years, such as the typewriter, with its invitation to the dictation practice; shorthand, and, most important of all, the telegraph? Certainly these agencies of expression cannot be without their marked and significant influences upon English style.

Were the effects of these appliances limited to the persons actually using them such an inquiry would not be worth making. […]

But, unfortunately, no man writes to himself alone. The makers of the popular vocabulary decree to a great extent the words which the recluse of the cloister must select. If the typewriter and the telegraph, for mechanical reasons purely, are encouraging certain words, certain arrangements of phrases, and a different dependence on punctuation, such an influence is a stone whose ripples, once set in motion, wash every shore of the sea of literature.

Of course, complaints about the effects of 19th-century new media began quite a bit earlier. Thus "The Lament of a Leader-Wrlter", Westminster Review (repriinted in Current Literature, 1900)

An old friend of mine, who entered journalism in 1854, and is still on the staff of a leading London paper, tells me of the golden age before the wire was used for everything. Those were the days of the careful leader, well written and well weighed, because its author knew that it could not be upset by the sudden arrival of a telegram while the ink was still wet on the paper. The leader-writer nowadays has no time to devote to style, for he has almost always to write against time, and it is only rarely that he is permitted to keep the whole of his "copy" by him; the usual practice is to tear it from him slip by slip in order to pacify the clamorous printers upstairs. Then there is ever at his elbow that infernal machine, the "tape," which at any moment may put forth some unwelcome contradiction of all that he has written in the last half-hour. I agree heartily with a very distinguished Italian journalist, who remarked to me that the electric telegraph had ruined literary journalism. It is no longer necessary for a journalist to be able to write. I know of one able correspondent of a leading London newspaper who would be puzzled to string together an article in decent English, but who, thanks to the free use of the telegraph, can perform his duties to the complete satisfaction of his employers.

If you're a uncertain as I was about what this author means by "leader", the OED's definition of leading article is "One of the longer large-type articles in a newspaper, appearing as the expression of editorial opinion on any subject; a leader."  As far as I can tell, this category no longer exists in any of the newspapers that I read — perhaps one of our better-informed readers can explain the history in more detail.

Among the fruits of this morning's scan of Google Books, my favorite so far is this observation about the emotional  dimension of telegraphy, from The Medical Times and Gazette, 1880:

During the intervals that occur, in the occupation of, say, two telegraphists placed vis-à-vis, and at distant stations (perhaps hundreds of miles apart), they have sometimes to exchange asides in connexion with their correspondence, or they may be tempted to snatch a chat with each other, especially when, as sometimes happens, from having long shaken hands with each other in the spirit, though not in the flesh, they may be said to have become pretty intimately acquainted. On these occasions, instead of the ordinary telegraphic language, they often make use of even a more rapid and suggestive code of signals, expressive of the feelings and emotions, such as anger, laughter, astonishment, regret, approval, delight, fear, interrogation, suspicion, thanks, scolding, kissing, etc. These ideas are expressed not in the regular way of letters and words, but transmitted through the sounder by a conventional or mutually understood articulation of taps—a succession of notes and intervals grouped and toned in such a way as to give even to an uninitiated ear the very idea intended to be conveyed.

On hearing a specimen of this kind of language at a lecture by a telegraphist, I was forcibly reminded of the natural language of some of the lower animals, such as the chattering of monkeys, and of parrots, crows, or jackdaws, and strengthened in the idea that they too may have a similar language among themselves, which they as readily understand and appreciate as our telegraphists do theirs.

Unfortunately, there's no evidence that this "even more rapid and suggestive code of signals" (if it really existed)  has left any significant wrack on the shores of the sea of literature.


  1. rootlesscosmo said,

    December 31, 2011 @ 11:00 am

    My dad (1903-1963) was a railroad telegrapher from age 20 until retirement. He told me telegraphers used to send "AO" to mean "asshole."

    [(myl) Interesting. No doubt there was a large lexicon of such informal abbreviations — do you know of any systematic documentation? But the 1880 article implies that "feelings and emotions" were somehow conveyed in a non-alphabetic way, somehow using evocative rhythmic patterns or something of the sort. ]

  2. Picky said,

    December 31, 2011 @ 11:17 am

    A leader or leading article is the British equivalent of what I believe would be called in American newspapers (as it also sometimes is in British ones) an "editorial", that is an unsigned opinion piece representing the current view (of the newspaper as an institution rather than of a bylined columnist) on some matter of the day. The thing the op-ed is op.

    [(myl) But the Leader-Writer's Lament seems to presuppose that "leaders" were once the most prominent and important way of conveying information to readers, not (as editorials now are) a separate section rather limited in scope and space. In reference to modern editorials, in British papers or American ones, it would be very odd to suggest that they're being threatened stylistically by the exigencies of telegraphic transmission. Editorial writers do have deadlines, but I don't think of them as having their copy "[torn] from [them] slip by slip in order to pacify the clamorous printers upstairs". Am I wrong? ]

  3. Das said,

    December 31, 2011 @ 11:20 am

    A "leader" is in British English what an "editorial" is in American.

    [(myl) That's clearly how the word is used now. But with respect to what editorials are now, at least in the papers I'm familiar with, that 1900 complaint doesn't really make any sense. And even the OED's gloss, "One of the longer large-type articles in a newspaper", doesn't work — are there really British newspapers where the editorials are longer than the news stories and features are? ]

  4. Ken Brown said,

    December 31, 2011 @ 11:35 am

    Leaders, and therefore presumably leader writers, still exist in every major British paper. I suspect that the peeve quoted in the OP wasn't so much about leaders as a medium of news, as about their opinions containing predictions which might be contradicted by the news.

    [(myl) But are "leaders" still the same sort of thing that they apparently were circa 1900? In particular, are they typically longer than news articles and features?]

  5. Picky said,

    December 31, 2011 @ 11:43 am

    Well, the leader has always carried considerable prestige. There was a time, folklore has it, when the Times leader could cause tremors in Downing Street. Unfortunately, of course, there are no longer clamorous printers in the composing room upstairs, and copy no longer exists slip by slip, and leader writers are usually too posh to have their copy snatched from them, anyway. But when composing rooms did exist, and when I was writing leaders, the pressure of production deadlines on days when the leader was on a developing story did produce a result only slightly less hyperbolic than the Westminster Review piece suggests. (Of course you know that we practitioners of a grimy business have to add a bit of sparkle to what we tell you about our job if we are to pretend to be valuable citizens.)

  6. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 31, 2011 @ 11:44 am

    In re rhythmic patterns: amateur radio uses HI (dit-dit-dit-dit, dit-dit) as the sign for laughing. It predates LOL by about a century. You can also say "hi" if you're not using code. It is not used in Spanish-speaking countries.


  7. diogenes said,

    December 31, 2011 @ 11:46 am

    I suspect that the works of writers such as Kipling – such as "007" or "an error in the 4th dimension" – or Twain would be useful to trawl for examples because they were so up to speed with technology but I cannoot off-hand recall such examples. It sounds like telegraph operators were using something close to emoticons.

  8. Nick Lamb said,

    December 31, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

    I don't find the leader writer's lament very persuasive in any case. An invented narrative upset by the sudden availability of contradictory facts could occur just as well with the arrival of a messenger by horse as by the clattering of the primitive telegraph.

  9. Picky said,

    December 31, 2011 @ 12:27 pm

    Maybe you are getting too hung up on "longer", myl. The OED definition could simply be distinguishing longer articles from short snippets of news (we may take the lengthy feature article to be a relatively modern invention, perhaps). And although British and American leaders are probably of much the same length, news stories in British newspapers tend to be shorter than their American equivalents. At any rate, just as developments coming in over the wire may impinge on a journalist putting a news story together, so they may on the leader writer trying to give an authoritative opinion on the subject.

    [(myl) It seems to me that newspapers have evolved a great deal over the past century, on both sides of the Atlantic; and I'm not sure that the reference of the term "leader" in that 1900 rant has any real counterpart in today's world. At least, it's hard for me to make the connection.

    The London Times for Jan. 10 of 1899 is here (warrning: 12 MB pdf file) — can you tell me which are the "leading articles", in the sense that the lamenting leader-writer of 1900 meant the term?]

  10. Picky said,

    December 31, 2011 @ 12:31 pm

    @Nick Lamb: the telegraph clattered all the time. The messenger on the horse, and the pigeon at the loft door, arrived discretely and occasionally.

  11. Mr Punch said,

    December 31, 2011 @ 12:35 pm

    It's important to bear in mind that objectivity in reporting was not a salient principle of 19th-century newspapers — and indeed is less important to British journalists today than it is to their American counterparts, at least in my observation.

  12. Tony Spataro said,

    December 31, 2011 @ 12:40 pm

    Modern Morse Code communication uses a system of "prosigns," which are two- or three-character sequences transmitted without the customary pause between characters, that have a specific meaning. Unless you live under a rock, you already know one prosign: SOS.

    While the letters chosen for a particular prosign generally have a mnemonic function (e.g. BK – break), not all of them map clearly back to an English phrase, and some of them have a "characteristic sound" that, to me, is reminiscent of the underlying meaning of the prosign.

    For instance:
    SK – end of transmission – di-di-di-DA-di-DA!

    Sounds a bit like that timeless fanfare that is used to announce goals at sports games, and so forth.

    Could it be that my beloved ham prosigns are the descendants of this telegraph operator's code?

  13. Sid Smith said,

    December 31, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

    We certainly still have leaders and leader writers on the London national newspaper where I'm a sub-editor.

    I kind of sympathise with the original author who complained about the intrusions of the telegraph, etc. A leader is supposed to be more of an essay than a news story and therefore ideally gives room for a structured argument — pretty time-consuming, and pretty painful if it needs to be scrapped.

    There are ways around this. The last editorial / leader piece I worked on was about Amanda Knox's appeal against her conviction. The piece couldn't be sent to the printers until the verdict arrived late in the evening, but was already written and subbed – apart from the last couple of words. It ended [approximately]: "I feel that Amanda Knox should never have been convicted. It seems that the Italian court agrees/disagrees."

  14. Gene Buckley said,

    December 31, 2011 @ 1:21 pm

    @myl: I don't know a reference for AO, but a short list of unusual telegraphic abbreviations is provided by Alfred Vail in his 1845 book, The American electro magnetic telegraph (on Google books). Page 52 includes the fairly useful ymir = your message is received as well as the very specific smtbop = send me ten barrels of pork. They occur in a discussion of methods of secrecy rather than efficiency, and in that respect bear a certain resemblance to the use of AO.

  15. Yakusa Cobb said,

    December 31, 2011 @ 1:25 pm

    The London Times for Jan. 10 of 1899 is here (…) — can you tell me which are the "leading articles" (…)

    The answer may be found on page 7 under "CONTENTS"

    [(myl) Thanks! I should have found that myself.]

  16. Rod Johnson said,

    December 31, 2011 @ 1:45 pm

    This article contains the following paragraph:

    The "lead" can also be the main or "lead(ing) article," usually appearing on the first page of a magazine, though letters to the editor and other features can precede it. In a newspaper, the "lead(ing) article" is often at the far right of page one, but each separate section can have its own main article. The "off-lead" is the second most prominent article, usually on the far left side. "Leader" (or "leder") is another term for the main article, a term used especially by The Wall Street Journal. In England, "leader" or "lead(ing) article" has a different meaning–it's a newspaper editorial.

    So it looks like this term survived, at least in the WSJ, for a while. I thought perhaps it was the ultimate source of modern American "lede," but maybe not.

  17. Rod Johnson said,

    December 31, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

    "Cog hog to rog and wemm pave a bumy tig."

  18. languageandhumor said,

    December 31, 2011 @ 3:06 pm

    @Tony Spataro "SK – end of transmission – di-di-di-DA-di-DA!"

    SK made it into teletypewriter (TTY) conversations of the deaf with the same use in the days before IMs/texting (and videophones). It's said to come from "send kill" (and GA for "go ahead," like military "over").

    Is "send kill" a post-facto explanation, as with the maximally distinct distress sequence of di-di-di-DA-DA-DA-di-di-di that only happens to be SOS being erroneously thought to stand for "save our ship" or "save our souls"?

  19. Brett said,

    December 31, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

    @Rod Johnson: My understanding is that that was exactly the same as the modern use of "lede" (which can also be spelled "lead"). Ledes are basically relative. The whole issue has leded; each section has a lede; and each article has a lede. I have even heard "lede" used to describe the first and most important sentence in the lede paragraph of a story.

  20. Geraint Jennings said,

    December 31, 2011 @ 3:41 pm

    I possess a copy of an collection entitled '"The Times" Fourth Leaders' (Penguin Books, 1945) – an anthology of less weighty leaders (a number of such anthologies were published). Here is (hastily scanned) part of the foreword:

    "THE forty-four short papers in this book have all appeared in The Times during the war years in the form of “ light” or “fourth” leading articles. In peace and war alike it is the function of the “light leader “, an institution of long standing in The Times, to bring an opportunity of turnings aside from preoccupations of the moment to meander down agreeable by-paths. In war-time, though “escapism” can be a term of reproach, there has been no doubt of the licence which the reader is ready and more than ready to grant to a commentary which from day to day seeks to offer the compensations of digression and distraction. For a number of these leaders the justification may best and most frankly be advanced in the words of Michael Finsbury. “ Nothing like a little judicious levity,’ remarked Michael, and it is to be hoped that his principle has not been carried too far and that cheerfulness can never be mistaken for lack of feeling. Others are conceived in a less light-hearted vein on themes palpably graver, but there is this resemblance between them all, that they look at life in a personal way and deal in private rather than public sentiments.

    All or nearly all are topical in the sense that there is some connexion between the subject of the article and an event, possibly a trivial event, of the day; but the connexion may often be loose. Sometimes a present event has suggested an excursion into the realms of the past and an almost inevitable comparison between times of war and peace. The articles have assumed some of the essayist’s licence — and these papers are essays in miniature — of gliding at will whither fancy or memory beguile them. Thus the too oppressive question of rations may melt insensibly into nursery tea, or modern travel in the corridor lead by a circumbendibus to the holiday journeys of a happier epoch."

  21. Janice Byer said,

    December 31, 2011 @ 3:49 pm

    In the article that Rod links @ 1:45 pm, the last line of the 5th paragraph informs us that:

    "Leader" in the sense [of] 'the main article' is an entry in Berrey and Van Den Bark's American Thesaurus of Slang (1942).

    Westminster Review is a British publication, but surely that's no bar to a possible relation.

  22. Mak said,

    January 1, 2012 @ 1:20 am

    "No doubt there was a large lexicon of such informal abbreviations — do you know of any systematic documentation?"

    Here's an article quoting The New York Times of November 30 1890 with a good list of examples of such abbreviations.

  23. Giacomo Ponzetto said,

    January 1, 2012 @ 5:34 am

    The Economist still carries leaders labelled as such, and in a leading position in the first section of each issue. E.g., for this week's issue:

  24. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    January 1, 2012 @ 6:55 am

    Take me to your leader.

    (Sorry, couldn't resist…)

  25. Teresa said,

    January 1, 2012 @ 9:00 am

    Thanks for this fascinating discussion about telegraphing; in particular, thanks to Mak for the link to the NYT article. Before reading this, I was beginning to deplore text- and twitter-speak as evidence that modern communication had gone mad !

  26. Terry Collmann said,

    January 1, 2012 @ 10:39 am

    This seems a suitable place to point out that Nokia used to supply an alert for SMS messages on mobile phones that spelled out "SMS" in morse.

  27. rootlesscosmo said,

    January 1, 2012 @ 11:13 am

    @Geraint Jennings: "Circumbendibus": articulated buses–extra long with a hinge in the middle, used for example on the 38 Geary line here in San Francisco, are known by Londoners as "bendy buses." A happy coincidence, or…?

    And is Michael Finsbury the character in Stevenson's story "The Wrong Box"?

  28. Geraint Jennings said,

    January 1, 2012 @ 1:28 pm

    @rootlesscosmo: Michael Finsbury indeed the RLS character – he also turns up in the Times fourth leader of 15 December 1943 on the subject of luggage. I get the feeling that, on reading one of these fourth leaders, I should be equipped with a Brewer's Phrase and Fable and a Latin dictionary – but I get that feeling quite a lot when reading C19th leaders or articles de fond. Closer to our own date, the Stoppard play "Dirty Linen" has a great send-up of the pre-Murdoch Times leader in which every other phrase is a French or Latin tag (and of other newspapers as well).

    Ceteris paribus an omnibus could be a circumbendibus in a roundabout way.

  29. rootlesscosmo said,

    January 1, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

    @Geraint Evans:
    O si sic omnes!

    I know the Stevenson story from the very funny movie version, with Michael Caine, John Mills, Ralph Richardson, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Peter Sellers (two great scenes as Dr. Pratt) and a brilliant character actor named Wilfrid Lawson (Doolittle the dustman in the Leslie Howard-Wendy Hiller Pygmalion) who steals the picture from them all as Peacock, the ancient butler. The film starts a little slowly but repays patience.

    Thanks for the Stoppard reference–I don't know that one.

  30. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 1, 2012 @ 6:32 pm

    The German term for editorial/leader/leading article is Leitartikel, so a calque seems to have occurred, though I don't know which way. For what it's worth, Germany had newspapers long (60 years) before Britain.

  31. Zach Blume said,

    January 2, 2012 @ 3:01 am

    "…were somehow conveyed in a non-alphabetic way, somehow using evocative rhythmic patterns or something of the sort…" Like the internet expression of frustration: fgdfSDEESDGAadfds! (random keyboard tapping)? (Ostensibly a substitute for grumbling)

  32. Lugubert said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 6:13 am

    On Terry Collman's comment: I have long wondered how many people have thought that they heard …—… for Nokia's …–… or believed there was an error in the SOS alert…

  33. linguistics | Pearltrees said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 8:30 pm

    […] If you're a uncertain as I was about what this author means by "leader", the OED's definition of leading article is "One of the longer large-type articles in a newspaper, appearing as the expression of editorial opinion on any subject; a leader." As far as I can tell, this category no longer exists in any of the newspapers that I read — perhaps one of our better-informed readers can explain the history in more detail. Language Log » Telegraphic language […]

  34. [links] Link salad for a whole new year and the end of time on the Mayan calendar | said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 1:40 pm

    […] Telegraphic language — Complaints from another era about the influence of media on literature. Always amusing to read this stuff, sort of like reading about Socrates complaining about kids today. His day, twenty-five centuries ago. […]

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