Friday, 19 September 2014

‘Telegram-ese’



Until Thatcher noticed she didn’t need them and so decided none of us could have them, there were things called telegrams in England. Young people used to the internet and mobile ’phones may not know what a telegram is:

The telegram service meant you could send a message very quickly — usually an hour or two — to anyone in the country, and neither sender nor recipient had to have a telephone or a computer. The sender went to the nearest telegram office — usually a desk in the Post Office — and wrote his message on a form, or perhaps dictated it to a clerk behind the counter. The text was then encoded — not in fact in Morse code but a code specially invented for the purpose — and sent by wire (some people called telegrams ‘wires’) to the Post Office nearest the intended recipient. There it was printed out on a length of paper tape, which was cut up and stuck to a form very like that on which the sender had first written his text.

Next, a ‘Telegram Boy’ — a teenager riding a red BSA Bantam motorcycle; it was a much-coveted job — rode out to wherever the recipient lived and delivered it.

Traditionally — in England anyway — the telegram brought bad news. For many families the only telegram they ever got was the official one in wartime, telling them their son or father or husband had been killed. The arrival of a telegram was a moment of dramatic suspense, featuring in many popular West End plays. Not any more: I think the United Kingdom must be the only ‘civilized’ country in the world with no telegram service. Thank you Mrs T., for that and so much else.

A feature of the telegram was that the sender paid by the word. A ‘word’ was any series of letters of the alphabet with no spaces. So parsimony invented ‘Telegram-ese’: compound words made up for the occasion. The following example is an exchange between Evelyn Waugh and the English newspaper which had sent him to Abyssinia to report on the war there:

            WHY UNNEWS

            UNNEWS GOOD NEWS

            UNNEWS UNJOB

            UPSTICK JOB ASSWISE

Here is a 1957 Photograph of a telegram boy:

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