Long before computer geeks created texting, news wires spoke cablese

By MARCELLA S. KREITER  |  Dec. 9, 2012 at 4:30 AM
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CHICAGO, Dec. 9 (UPI) -- Oh those computer geeks are a smug bunch, thinking they invented the shorthand communication known as texting or SMS -- short message service.


Credit is given to English engineer Neil Papworth, who sent the first short burst Dec. 3, 1992, a "Merry Christmas" to Vodafone director Richard Jarvis.

Sorry guys. That message came about a century after wire service reporters stationed around the world and their penny-pinching overseers -- uh, editors -- developed a language known as "cablese."

Cablese persisted for decades, even after it no longer was necessary to limit the number of words sent through Western Union, which charged by the word, or letters in a word because information could move only so fast -- 45 or 55 words a minute was about the best one could hope for as recently as the 1970s -- and in larger bureaus (buos in the parlance) an "operator" had to punch it.

One didn't send a message, one messaged. Whole teletype machines were dedicated to intracompany communications. For a new employee, trying to read the message wire was a bit like listening to elders speaking a foreign language when they didn't want the kids to understand. Messaging was de rigueur. Long-distance phone calls were just too expensive.

Some ambitious salesmen even sold these message wires to clients who wanted a heads up on what would be filed later in the cycle or just enjoyed reading what reporters and their editors yelled at each other. And yes, it was yelling: Most of the machines printed only uppercase.

Nearly all U.S. cities had two-letter designations, St. Louis and Honolulu being major exceptions. St. Louis was represented by an X because it was seen as a crossroads. Honolulu was 99, an old telegrapher's code for lulu. The outpost later was redesignated as hono. Chicago was HX, named for the Herald Examiner newspaper, long defunct, Miami was MH for The Miami Herald and Los Angeles was HC for Harold Clark, a former president of United Press. One of my favorites was HP for Grand Rapids, Mich., memorializing Harold Pringle, who was either a UP/UPI salesman or the publisher of The Grand Rapids Press -- I never did get a straight explanation from anyone -- and DQ was not Dairy Queen. Rather, it was Akron, Ohio, so designated for H.D. "Doc" Quigg, a masterful UP/UPI correspondent and feature writer. Des Moines, Iowa, was NW -- for nowhere.

Chicago controlled what were known as the East and West wires way back when information had to be relayed and developed a reputation for writers who really knew how to round up national stories into nice neat packages. Because it had access to news flowing from both coasts and points in between, it usually handled stories that needed input from across the country.

Take the weather. Florida newspapers, because many of their readers were snowbirds who had escaped the rigors of harsher climes, loved a weather story. Every day. Whether there were major storms or not.

To gather material for a weather lead, one didn't simply send a message saying, "Bureaus, please send me what you've got for a weather roundup for morning newspapers." Too long. The request would have been something like: "Buos, showerdown wea pro ayem rup." A particularly polite writer might have said "nd pls" (need please) or appc (appreciate) instead of (sted) "showerdown."

One of the least-loved terms was "downhold," as in, "Stop spending money. We're over budget." Such directives often were signed SOB -- the superintendent of bureaus. There's even a group of UPI veterans that gets together periodically and calls it a meeting of the Downhold Club.

Many times words were combined to get around the Western Union pay-per-word charges. Closing for the night and saying good night would be: "Downclosing gni." Errors were "upscrews" (or something more colorful) that had to be "upfixt."

Some other terms:

-- bun: bulletin

-- 95: urgent

-- 73: cheers, a typical sign off on messages

-- 88: a particularly warm sign off on messages often likened to hugs-and-kisses

-- cax: casualties

-- clup: close up or clear up or clean up message traffic

-- et: and

-- ex: from

-- gm: good morning

-- gaft: good afternoon

-- ga: go ahead

-- ii: an acknowledgement like OK or will do

-- lxn: election

-- nupe: newspaper

-- outtapocket: someone who can't be contacted for a time (as in outtapocket lunchly)

-- pox: police

-- pix: pictures (photographers were pixies)

-- rdo: radio

-- sap, sappest or asap: as soon as possible

-- smorn: this morning

-- sox: sheriff's office

-- spox: state police

-- stam: statement

-- telco: telephone company, also known as phoners

-- tnx: thanks

-- tt: that

-- uk: understand

-- ur: you are or your

-- xgr: legislature

So, take that those of you who think you're so hip. Texting is nothing new.


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