Text Message Slang Goes Back To Telegraph Operators

“When language is used without true significance, it loses its purpose as a means of communication and becomes an end in itself.” —Karl Jaspers, “Man in the Modern Age”

In A Nutshell

Although text slang seems to be a new invention, it has actually been used since the 1890s. Telegraph operators develop an idiomatic set of abbreviations and slang terms to shorten their messages and keep down prices. Just like modern text slang, these messages were nearly impossible for non-operators for decipher. This slang is the precursor to modern SMS terms like ROFL, LOL, and more.

The Whole Bushel

Since the invention of modern SMS texting, users of the technology have tried to make their messages shorter for ease of reading and speed of typing. To do this, most text message users have adopted a slang form of the English language known as “text lingo.” Derided by English professors and linguistic purists, text slang has drifted into the real world and is supposedly murdering the modern English language. It is a sign of the intellectual decay of the modern day!

However, these English language snobs may be unaware that abbreviated communication language has been around for more than a century. When the telegraph was invented, it completely changed the face of information technology. Suddenly, a person could send a message over vast distances without having to rely on a horse. But it turns out that along with rapid communication comes slang and shorthand writing. Telegraph operators of the 1890s quickly developed a peculiar lingo that would be completely unknown to non-operators.

An 1890s article in Sunday Magazine investigated the practice.

One passage from it reads as follows:

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In their conversations telegraphers use a system of abbreviations which enables them to say considerably more in a certain period of time then [sic] they otherwise could. Their morning greeting to a friend in a distant city is usually “g. m.,” and the farewell for the evening, “g. n.,” the letters of course standing for good morning and good night. The salutation may be accompanied by an inquiry by one as to the health of the other, which would be expressed thus: “Hw r u ts mng?” And the answer would be: “I’m pty wl; hw r u?” or “I’m nt flg vy wl; fraid I’ve gt t mlaria.”

Operator slang also included the use of the phrase “ha ha” to show amusement just like modern text lingo. But back in the day, the “ha ha” was a little more advanced. Depending on the length of the signal and how many times it was repeated, and operator could signify how funny they thought the joke was. Repeating “ha” was the old-time version of ROFL.

Telegraph operators also became good at shortening phrases to both save time and save the money of the customer sending the telegraph. An operator was instructed to keep messages as short as possible and cut out unnecessary words. For telegraph operators, articles and pronouns were the first to get the cut. This could make the messages read like overly long run-on sentences, much like modern text messages.

Even though the practice was forgotten between the telegraph and the mobile phone, it is indeed a time-honored tradition.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: Cardiff Council Flat Holm Project
“How to Write Telegrams Properly,” Nelson E. Ross
Sunday Magazine: From 1890: The First Text Messages

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