Telegraphy & 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. Dozens of different codes were published; many catered to specific occupations and all promised efficiency.

The phrases below are from the third edition of “The Anglo-American Telegraphic Code,” published in 1891. It can only be hoped that, as Twitter advances, more people will begin Tweeting in code, thus (some examples):

Aloofness = Agent is dead.
Amphimacer = You must send my allowance immediately.
Hortyard = There is little hope.
Orangeman = What is the opinion on the street?
Rollable = Your request is unreasonable.

Ben Schott, author of Schott’s Almanac 2010.