Here’s a strange relic, from a century ago, that was mentioned in the Times recently: The Anglo-American Telegraphic Code.

Back when communication-by-wire was new and edgy technology, its users devised, as a way to keep messages small, a mapping of thousands of words — some of them ordinary English words, others made-to-order — onto various useful phrases. These were collected into a standard reference that telegraphers could use to pack and unpack transmitted content.

Here are a few examples:

Barry: Send immediate notice should a battle occur
Bedelry: I (we) can do but little, if anything, before
Decemvir: Has been dead a long time
Desertless: Denial is useless
Imposable: Ore in winze improving in quality
Outbray: There can be no other
Roselite: Resistance is useless

Odd, interesting reading, from a bygone age of the world. I imagine that back in 1891, when this reference was published, there were even telegraph gurus who had the whole thing memorized, like some sort of secular Hafiz.

You can look at the whole thing here; the title page alone is worth the trip.

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  1. Sorry, I’ve come late to this.

    It reminds me of a self-promise I made some considerable time ago to try and understand the naval system of flag signals. I seem to recall that I made the promise after reading years ago that Nelson’s famous order to his fleet just prior to Tragalgar had to be altered because of the restrictions inherent in that means of communication.

    Me? I only just managed to master morse code in the army at a speed so hesitant and slow that a halfway decent naval signaller could have read War and Peace!

    Posted August 13, 2009 at 1:35 pm | Permalink
  2. Sorry, I meant to add that there might be some truths to be learned concerning the underlying nature of language by a study of these proxy languages.

    Posted August 13, 2009 at 1:37 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Yes indeed, David. I found this artifact fascinating also.

    Posted August 13, 2009 at 11:55 pm | Permalink