Monday, April 18, 2011


I am old enough to remember the giddy pleasure of receiving a telegram. Countless millions under thirty probably have no idea what a telegram is, or was. On my tenth birthday, from Cambridge University my beloved elder brother Hamish sent me my first telegram. It read: “CONGRATULATIONS STOP DOUBLE FIGURES STOP MANY HAPPY RETURNS STOP HAMISH.” I still have it. The point of those STOPs was for clarity, and to assist whoever conveyed the original message by telephone trunk call between post offices. And of course the charge was calculated according to the exact number of words. When the trans-Atlantic and other trans-continental cables were first laid, and the telegraph was up and running, essentially the same system of fees applied, so to reduce the cost of lengthy communications between, say, a company director in London, and his agent or lawyer in New York, various codes were published whose purpose was not so much to clothe those communications in secrecy, but to control the relatively high cost of sending them. True, many other correspondents did employ codes, from the highly complex to the laughably simple—even words spelled backwards or crudely rearranged according to an elementary formula—but these were mostly confined to the personal columns in the cheaper weeklies, a litany of doomed liaisons, missed rendezvous, and opportunities of happiness forever sacrificed on the altars of obligation and duty. That story has been told most recently by H. G. Cocks in his Classified: The Secret History of the Personal Column, but I also have an anthology that was lovingly compiled from The Times, the Morning Chronicle, and other newpapers by Jean Palmer (The Agony Column Codes and Ciphers). Instead, whilst sorting through some books last evening, I came across my copy of The Anglo-American Telegraphic Code (1901), which, according to the title page, was “adapted to use in general correspondence, including business, social, political, and all other subjects.” The anonymous New York-based authors must have ransacked Webster’s Dictionary in search of thousands of suitable terms, but the truly creative part was that they also dreamed up many more roughly cognate nonsense words for clusters of apparently related terms and phrases. Language with truly personal application is scarce: there no words for love, marriage, family relations, domestic arrangements. It is mostly about banking, bonds, shipments, bankruptcy, mining, buying, selling. Yet as I leafed and pondered I found myself imagining the private secretary of a newly appointed Governor of Newfoundland about to set sail from Southampton, cabling ahead to Government House, St. John’s, in the following terms: Bandicoot Wapentakes Shadow Dorn Foolify Elision Hoyman Renownful Lady Sutherland Sagging Notices Stamper Pipkin Manship Private Secretary. This unravels as BANDICOOT = With what bank do you transact business? WAPENTAKES = I want if possible to; SHADOW = send at once; DORN = draft for; FOOLIFY = 58 pounds; ELISION = to engage; HOYMAN = housemaid; RENOWNFUL = with good references; LADY SUTHERLAND; SAGGING = Expect to sail on the; NOTICES = first of November; STAMPER = Can I rely on you to take the proper steps? PIPKIN = Please reply; MANSHIP, PRIVATE SECRETARY: seventeen words instead of forty-five. At the Post Office rate of a farthing per word, that adds up to 4¼d, instead of 11¼d, a saving of slightly more than 62%. It is hard to know why The Anglo-American Telegraphic Code took the trouble to provide tens of thousands of consecutively arranged numerical equivalents, since anyone could buy a copy and decode them just as easily as they could decipher the words, but it may have appealed to those Victorian and Edwardian gentlemen who assumed that Post Office clerks and errand boys were incapable of figuring out the system. Certain of those same gentlemen, incidentally, adopted the sinister practice of sending each other telegrams, the sole purpose of which was to provide an exciting opportunity to engage in sexual intercourse with the Post Office boys who delivered them, in return for a hefty pourbois. That infinitely sordid practice came to light in the so-called Cleveland Street scandal of 1889. At any rate, Colonel Manship’s telegram, made necessary by the sudden death from a chill of Dora the housemaid, and too little time left to fill her berth in England prior to setting sail, might also have read: “2768 24168 20995 8374 26617 8916 11864 19167 LADY SUTHERLAND 20352 15752 21896 17319 MANSHIP, PRIVATE SECRETARY.” Personal servants were the individual responsibility of colonial governors and their wives, so a communication of this kind was not generally sent using the Colonial Office or Royal Navy ciphers, nor indeed by official dispatch. Hence there was an even greater incentive to keep an eye on the cost, unless you happened to be as stupendously wealthy or under-employed as the Earl and Countess of Hopetoun. But the vast majority of British colonial administrators were not, so The Anglo-American Telegraphic Code was one of those ingenious tools of thrift with which Edwardians on both sides of the Atlantic maintained the thrumming engine of international trade. Besides, browsing in it these days is an extremely effective remedy for insomnia.

1 comment:

  1. In the U.S. there was the lingering notion that telegrams were a sign of bad news. (The Secretary of War regrets to inform you ...) I was always criticized in school for writing "elegram sentences" becasue I wrote simple. Short and simple. Are other languages as amenable to this as English?