Wednesday, May 23, 2012


"A lot of us can't remember what life was like before smartphones, let alone the Internet"

Old Telegraph Key
There's an article up at Cracked which I found fascinating and wanted to draw your attention to. Cracked is typically juvenile and crude, but they are almost always thoughtful and intelligent as well, sort of a South Park way of teaching and entertaining. I appreciate snark less and less as I age, but the content is still good.

This article is about Internet annoyances and how they were predated by older technology, such as spam, trolling and so on. The most interesting piece to me was on misspellings caused by technology, a common theme today with "predictive typing" systems on modern phones which have caused no end of hilarity, even if they had to be faked. Maxwell Yezpitelok (is that a real name?) and M. Asher Cantrell write:
Well, telegraph users in the 19th and early 20th centuries had to put up with a surprisingly similar annoyance: Just because you sent the right signals through the wire didn't necessarily mean the same words would reach the other side. The Victorian version of AutoCorrect was called "hog-Morse" after the tendency for the word "home" to come through as "hog," resulting, for example, in a message that said "home sweet home" becoming "hog swat hog." Other examples include turning "cow" into "coat," "wife" into "wig" and "U.S. Navy" into "us nasty," which had to be the name of at least one '80s R&B group.
They give other amusing examples, but the real reason behind this was user error most of the time. If you don't pay very close attention and know your morse very well, you'll not quite hear things correctly:
Hog-Morse was the result of inexperienced or inept telegraph operators misreading Morse code signals without noticing -- basically, it was like a pre-computer version of a software bug. In fact, instead of "n00bs," new telegraph users who made annoying mistakes were actually known as "bugs," since most of them used a cheap telegraph key that had an insect for a logo.
In other words, the idea of a "bug" predates computers significantly (by about 100 years). They also give the origin of a computer bug: a literal moth found inside a computer in 1947.

Now, like the fax spam of the 90s, there was telegraph spam as well. Unscrupulous telegraph users would bombard areas with advertising through the system and enrage genuine users doing business. Another particularly interesting bit (particularly to me as I love how language develops) is this:
Back in the 1830s and '40s, a fad developed (primarily in the Boston area) that became known as "comical abbreviations." The idea was that people would take a word or phrase, imagine how an uneducated bumpkin would spell it and then, to make it even more confusing, abbreviate it. For example, "all right" would turn into "oll wright" and then "OW." "No use" became "know yuse" and then "KY." Other riotous examples of this hilarious trend include "KG" for "know go" and "NC" for "nuff ced."
One of these survived to become standard use worldwide: Oll Korrect = OK. This one gained standard use through presidential candidate Martin Van Buren's use of it (you'll have to read the Cracked piece to see how).

There are other historical versions out there such as obsessive fans and the Nigerian Prince scam, but those two are the most interesting historical pieces. I am fascinated with how certain terms seem new but are actually quite old. Consider this one:

You ever hear a homeboy talk about bustin' caps in someone? That dates back to the 19th century when you actually had to put a percussion cap on a gun to fire a bullet. Cowboys would talk about "bustin' caps" because that's what you did to fire your pistol. Older models such as the Walker Colt would use these devices, making reloading quite long and laborious. I love stuff like that and try to use them in writing. In any case, take a look at the Cracked article, its lots of fun.

*UPDATE: forgot the link, whoops!

1 comment:

vanderleun said...

I certainly will. I presume you mean the article at