“If you do not intend to stipulate that marks of punctuation be transmitted, write your message without punctuation and read it carefully to make sure that it is not ambiguous.” –Instructions from a 1928 pamphlet intended to help people write more effective telegrams.
I’ve been thinking about texting and telegrams lately, and wondering what we might learn about texting from that older form. It seems that people took language more seriously back then, when a telegram was an event. We get so many transmissions these days, via text (and all the other media) that nothing really seems to matter. We stand in the middle of a constant stream of messages, from which we have to decipher hierarchy and meaning.
In 1928 every word counted. From my research, though, it seems that the number of characters in a telegram didn’t matter. There was none of this “CU@4” business.
Numbers were communicated not with digits, but with words. Because it left less room for error, they would write “one hundred million” instead of “100,000,000.” Imagine the consequences for a missing zero here or there, and you’ll see why it was ultimately more efficient to spell it out.
Periods weren’t used because they were too easily missed in the transmission. Hence, the use of STOP, as in:
MEET GARE DU NORD PARIS APRIL TWENTIETH STOP REPLY SOONEST
Two things happened within the past year that prompted me to text more. Last summer, my son, Keenan, moved to Minnesota. He’s almost always in class or at work, so I text him messages instead of calling. Second, I upgraded to a phone with a keypad; never could quite get the hang of T9.
Thus far, I refuse to give up punctuation. I rarely use capital letters, which truly are just too much trouble and seem irrelevant to getting my point across.
I get messages like this from him: “Sitting in the laundromat washing my clothes.” I like these little everyday glimpses into my son’s life that his texts afford me.
But I could never get anything close to the full picture of his life from those laconic bits. I need phone calls or Skype video chats with him to feel like I’m fully informed.
Last February in Tucson, I purchased a hot pink raincoat at a consignment store. It was almost the last thing I needed, but was such an iconic item that I had to have it. Much like the red purse I wrote about last year, it attracts attention every time I wear it. It’s shorthand, a kind of telegraphic statement of sorts.
LOOK NOW STOP WAHOO HAPPY SPRING
Of course, someone seeing me in my hot pink coat only gets the short version of the story. They don’t hear how I shop only under the duress of a fashion emergency, and that I am not generally a lucky shopper. They don’t hear how my mother (who rarely buys used, but never pays full price for new items either) urged me to pay the shockingly high price of $17.
You also wouldn’t know from a glance about the reviled, red zip-up raincoat that I owned but refused to wear as a teen because I thought it was so dumb-looking. We lived in very rainy Belgium at the time, but I preferred wet over geeky. That awful red raincoat ruined raincoats for me, until now. The full story is so much more revealing, but the urgency of the pink coat’s telegraphic message could easily override the more interesting back story.
So while brevity and clarity have their place, narrative is so much deeper and juicier. Language grows out of our need to express concepts and nuance, like a gourmet meal, with flavors and colors layered in delightful and interesting ways. Think fresh, ripe strawberries with the surprise of a balsamic vinegar sauce. In view of that, texting is like eating Sweet Tarts all day long.
Recently, on a sunny day, I saw a man joyfully playing a trumpet on the corner of the driveway by Target. No one was paying any attention to him, but he was fully engaged with his instrument. Afterwards, I wished I had stopped to chat to find out more of his story. His telegram said this to me:
TRUMPET MY LIFE STOP LISTEN BE HAPPY
And maybe that’s all I really needed to know.