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How Twitter medownlets

Telegraphese meets Twitter

One of my greatest disappointments with Twitter, as used by media-types when tweeting other media-types, is that it has utterly failed to revive the great legacy of telegraphese when it comes to news alerts.

On the face of it, it is the ideal modern communication mode to do so. The 140-letter limit forces you to be brief, concise and clear, just as the financial restraints did with the telegram. Twitter actively reins in prolixity, unlike emails and blogs. And unlike textspeak, there’s enough room within 140 characters to be inventive, clever and occasionally funny in formulating words.

Alas, that’s not the way media-type Tweetspeak has evolved. Instead, it’s either merely a subset of textspeak, complete with OMGs, LOLs and other abominations, or it’s little more than a cut’n’paste job of prosaic web headlines, complete with the ever-essential keywords all lined up “like cavalry horses answering a bugle”, as Orwell had it in another context.

Of course, media outlets using Twitter to inform their twittering public of the latest headlines have to use concise language which those readers can understand. That’s not what I’m on about. But I think journalists and media commentators whose audience is primarily other journalists and media-types are missing the opportunity to revive a great journalistic telegraphese tradition. And we’re missing out on a great opportunity to add to the gaiety of our profession which, let’s face it could do with as much gaiety it can get these days.

Consider the recent example of Daily Star reporter Richard Peppiatt’s melodramatic “open” resignation letter to Richard Desmond.

The Guardian Media’s tweet on its story was:

Guardian tweet

In other words, a cut’n’paste of the headline on the web story. How much livelier it would have been to Media Guardian readers if it had been tweeted in newspaper telegraphese:

telegraphese tweet

The Guardian tweet = 106 characters. Telegraphese tweet = 90 characters, says the same thing plus adds that “You’ll never work in this town again” element the Guardian oddly omitted.

I should explain for readers of more, ahem, tender years that telegraphese has nothing to do with the house style of the Daily Telegraph (Gawd bless you, Lord Hefferlump!) but was a kind of code senders of telegrams (aka cables) used to cut the cost. Because of the way telegrams were sent – Morse Code – and the way the technology worked, the cost was determined by the distance it had to travel (it was cheaper to send one within the same city than to another country), its urgency and – crucially – the number of words. Spaces and punctuation also counted as words and so incurred a cost. So it was essential to be as concise as possible to impart the maximum of information in the fewest possible words. Indeed, the character who wasn’t concise and composed telegrams as though writing a leisurely letter became a common comic device for writers such as a P G Wodehouse and, as we shall see, Evelyn Waugh.

Brevity using standard English wasn’t enough, so various businesses and entrepreneurs came up with their own codes, so what would take several words could be condensed into one. The US National Coal Association issued a telegram code book in 1918 in which the word “actor” means “3/4-inch gas lump.” Users of The World-wide Travellers’ Cipher Code produced in 1901, could announce they were going to Japan merely by sending the word “Libreger”, that they were now in Japan with “Libretto” and that they were leaving Japan with “Librilis”.

Of course, these code words would be totally incomprehensible to anyone else, unless, of course, they also had the code book to transcribe it, which is why entrepreneurs saw how to make a killing. Realising they were losing money that was going into others’ pockets, most of the telegraph companies banned the use of code words unless they were sent at premium rates and encouraged customers to pay for confirmation messages in case the code had been wrongly sent.

The best known and most enduring form of telegraphese was that used by journalists, particularly foreign correspondents in far-flung troublespots. It was curious and inventive mixture, but followed basic rules, all aimed as maximising the amount of information while minimising the cost:

  • no definite or indefinite articles, so no a, an or the
  • abbreviations, often those commonly used in newsrooms, such as PM, SOS (Secretary of State) etc, as well as many common in current textspeak: thx, yr, hv etc
  • prepositions joined to their associated verbs or adjectives to avoid spaces, which counted as separate words and had to be paid for. UN- stood for not, no or other negative , -EST to mean very or any other kind of  intensifier (SOONEST, URGENTEST and the telegraphic equivalent of ranting down the phone, SAPPEST, the urgency of which which only makes sense when you realise the SAP is related to ASAP), -WARDS for to or towards (PROCEED TOKYOWARDS) and others such as UPSEND, DOWNHOLD (which means hold down, usually in the phrase DOWNHOLD EXPENSES) and OVERHEAD, which meant “by telephone” in much the same way we might use “landline”
  • occasional use of Latin or French, either as prefixes or suffixes, such as EX-, CUM- (with) and SANS (without). Probably the most famous telegraphese use of Latin was that used by General Sir Charles Napier who, after annexing the Indian province of Sind in 1843, sent the one-word telegram PECCAVI to the Foreign Office. Peccavi is Latin for “I have sinned”

A good example using all the above is given with in this exchange between New York and Tokyo newsrooms in the 1950s:

SOS ETWIFE HEADS TOKYOWARD SMORNING SANSTOP STOP MUCHLY APC EYEBALL ARRIVAL STOP URGENTEST NEED THUMBSUCKER CUMART STOP

In real-life English this means: “The secretary of state and his wife will fly non-stop to Tokyo this morning. We need you to be on hand for their arrival, but first we urgently need a news analysis and pictures to go with it.”

Tokyo replies:

ONWORKING

The most commonly cited examples of telegraphese are those found in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (1938), in which the hapless countryman contributor to Lush Places, William Boot, is mistakenly sent by Lord Copper of the Daily Beast to cover the crisis in the African state of Ishmaelia.

Evelyn Waugh's Scoop

First UK edition of Scoop

Totally out of his depth and finding no news he sees worthy of mention, Boot is harassed by the Beast foreign desk with cryptic telegrams such as:

UNPROCEED LAKUWARD STOP…REMAIN CONTACTING CUMREDS STOP NEWS EXYOU UNRECEIVED STOP DAILY HARD NEWS ESSENTIALIST STOP…

and:

BADLY LEFT ALL PAPERS ALL STORIES

Without knowing it, Boot makes good in his own leisurey fashion:

NOTHING MUCH HAS HAPPENED EXCEPT TO THE PRESIDENT WHO HAS BEEN IMPRISONED IN HIS OWN PALACE BY REVOLUTIONARY JUNTA HEADED BY SUPERIOR BLACK NAMED BENITO AND RUSSIAN JEW WHO BANNISTER SAYS IS UP TO NO GOOD . . . LOVELY SPRING WEATHER BUBONIC PLAGUE RAGING.

Before he sends the cable, he gets another one from the Beast:

YOUR CONTRACT TERMINATED STOP

Unfazed, and eager to go out for a drive with his girlfriend, Katchen, Boot adds to his original message:

SACK RECEIVED SAFELY THOUGHT I MIGHT AS WELL SEND THIS ALL THE SAME

Of course, Boot’s cable causes a sensation at the Beast and elevates him to a Fleet Street legend “to be handed down among the great traditions of his trade,told and re-told in the milk-bars of Fleet Street, quoted in books of reminiscence, held up as a model to aspiring pupils of Correspondence Schools of Profitable Writing, perennially fresh in the jaded memories of a hundred editors”.

Waugh knew whereof he spoke, having been the Daily Mail’s correspondent during the second Italo-Abyssinia war in 1935 (he earlier reported the coronation of Abyssinian emperor Haile Selassie for several newspapers in 1930). His most famous telegraphese exchange occurred when the Mail, desperately chasing a story in its rivals about a pretty American nurse who had been killed in by a bomb, sent the cable:

SEND 200 WORDS UPBLOWN NURSE

Waugh, having investigated and found the story to be the imaginative work of a rival Mr Remington Keystroke, cabled back:

NURSE UNUPBLOWN

“Lord Copper” was amused “up to a point*”, and Waugh was soon unjobbed.

Other imaginative uses of telegraphese have also entered the Fleet Street pantheon: Revel Barker has a good one he retold on the always excellent Gentlemen Ranters:

This reminded me of a story, I think originally told to me by George Gordon, of an exchange between the Telegraph’s foreign desk and its man in the Congo:

WHY UNNEWS QUERY

– UNNEWS HERE STOP

UNNEWS THERE UNJOB HERE STOP

– UPSTICKJOB ARSEWARDS STOP RUDE LETTER FOLLOWS STOP

Obviously I’m on a hiding to nothing hoping to revive telegraphese with Twitter. Still, it’s nice to see that occasionally, just occasionally, telegraphese sneaks its ways into articles. Witness this, from the Guardian:

But all too soon, the party conference season will be here and so it feels the right moment for an up-sum.

* I use the phrase “up to a point, Lord Copper” here in the sense that Waugh meant it in Scoop, not the way silly, overpaid journalists (particularly sub-editors and other headline writers) who should know better use it.
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