The Friday Fillip

If I were clever, this entry would be the briefest fillip yet. But… I ain’t and it ain’t. So let me go on at just a little length about abbreviation in messaging. See, there’s no real cost to my prolixity: on a blog, no one is charging me for the publication of each word. But if I were texting you I might try to compress things so that my thumbs wouldn’t fall off and your eyes wouldn’t fall out from reading on the teeny tiny screen. This is old news: who doesn’t know LOL, RU, 2NTE, TTFN, etc.?

Curiously, Twitter hasn’t spawned an abbreviated language, and, to judge by the people I follow, texting abbreviations aren’t very common. Sure, there’s the @ convention, that designates a person who tweets. And URLs are religiously shortened. But you’d think things would have shrunk much more than that because, of course, an budget has been imposed on Twitter of 140 characters per tweet, placing a cost on each and every letter. No time to develop a unique code? But why not adopt the IM lingo? Perhaps because tweets aren’t personal, like messages, much of the short stuff is simply inappropriate.

If we decide to adopt abbreviations, we may want to find them by consulting the “olden days” when Twitter was the Telegraph, and you were charged by the word. A recent (short) piece in the NY Times, “Twittergraphy” by Ben Schott, reminded us of how it was — and what it was that we used to say in Morse. Particularly, in 1891 James K Selleck published the Anglo-American telegraphic code to cheapen telegraphy and to furnish a complete cypher, to enable businesses to share information without breaking the bank.

In the telegraphic code, whole stock phrases were wrapped up in words (perhaps because you weren’t allowed to send unintelligible single letters or integers): thus “TITMOUSE” decodes as I (we) accept with pleasure your invitation for the theatre tomorrow evening. Now that’s compression. MIGHTILY = Employ only as many men as necessary.; AMPHIMACER = You must send my allowance immediately.; APSE = The sheriff will not arrest.

Different industries would develop different codes. Thus the Great Western Railway had its own code to make messages between trains, yards and offices shorter — presumably to spare the “fist” of the telegrapher, as much as to contain costs.


The gloriously named “Law’s mercantile cipher code for forwarding business communications by telegraph, telephone or postal card, with secrecy and economy, in use by subscribers and attorneys of the Canadian Reporting and Collecting Association,” (an excerpt from which you see above) was published in Toronto in 1880 and, unlike the Anglo-American code book (held tight by Harvard and Google Books), is available online, thanks to the University of Alberta Library, which digitized it, and the Internet Archive, which hosts it. My favourite abbreviation in this book is “lapdog” which decodes as Everything appears satisfactory here.


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