Ben Schott, proprietor of the New York Times' Schott's Vocab blog, had a great column on the op-ed page of the New York Times on Monday. I probably would have missed it except I was flying and had bought a copy of the paper, which I rarely do anymore. (The print NYT is expensive, but I always find I get more out of it when I have it in my hands instead of scanning the Web site.) Anyway, it was about codes that were used for telegraph because of character limits, much like those of Twitter:
The 140-character limit of Twitter posts was guided by the 160-character limit established by the developers of SMS. However, there is nothing new about new technology imposing restrictions on articulation. During the late 19th-century telegraphy boom, some carriers charged extra for words longer than 15 characters and for messages longer than 10 words. Thus, the cheapest telegram was often limited to 150 characters.
Concerns for economy, as well as a desire for secrecy, fueled a boom in telegraphic code books that reduced both common and complex phrases into single words.
It's clear that secrecy was a big concern, because none of the single words have any bearing on what they stand for.
Here are my five favorites from his lengthy list of examples out of The Anglo-American Telegraphic Code, published in 1891. I picked them based on what they meant, not how interesting the words are. Almost every code word on the full list was strange and wonderful:
- Aloofness: Agent is dead.
- Andalusite: You seem to be annoyed.
- Babylonite: Please provide bail immediately.
- Crisp: Can you recommend to me a good female cook?
- Titmouse: I (we) accept with pleasure your invitation for the theater tomorrow evening.