Abbreviations in electronic communication have a long tradition in the U.S. The forerunners of LOL, BTW, and FWIW date from the 19th century, as Americans tried to save money on costly telegrams. In 1860, a message from New York to New Orleans cost $2.70 — the equivalent of over $70 today— and only permitted the sender a 10-word message. Transcontinental telegrams, which were introduced on October 24, 1861, were even more expensive: A 10-word telegram from California to the East Coast cost more than $210 in modern currency.
Americans soon found ways to say more with less, dropping nonessential prepositions, articles, punctuation, and any words that could be omitted while retaining the sense of the message. This message from the Wright brothers to their father on December 17, 1903, is a good example of “telegraphese”:
Success four flights thursday morning all against twenty one mile wind started from level with engine power alone average speed through air thirty one miles longest 57 seconds inform Press home Christmas
But as businesses grew more dependent on communication with remote salespeople, they began developing their own abbreviations. Eventually, businesses constructed their own system of code words for commonly used phrases, as “Lost Your Money? Wire KUBIT” explains. Now they could keep in touch with the home office and not exceed 10 words.
It’s surprising that codes haven’t made a comeback. Coded messages might not be understood as quickly as common acronyms and initialisms, but a simple decoder app could quickly render the gibberish back into English. Coded texts also add another level of security, and protecting emails and texts from interception is getting harder all the time.
Lost Your Money? Wire KUBIT
By Paul D. Green
Originally published on November 6, 1948
Commercial codes, like double talk and nuclear fission, require a lot of understanding. To the average person, the oddly combined letters, GAHGU, appearing in a business telegram, might suggest approaching nausea. But to men like William J. Mitchel, who know commercial codes, these letters stand for “cod-liver oil.” Similarly, the letters AAAAA, in code language, mean “goose feathers, No. 1 grade,” and the letters ZZZZZ mean “bamboo steel.” Between these combinations are 456,000 other possible combinations, which may mean anything from a single word to a whole page of text.
In 26 years of code building, Mitchel has sold some 40,000 general business codes at from $40 to $75 each. In addition, he has made private codes for more than 300 large firms, including Standard Oil and General Motors. His largest private code contained 400,000 five-letter combinations, took two years and nine assistants to assemble, and cost the silk-importing firm that ordered it $100,000. Military and diplomatic codes are in an entirely different field; they are so much more complicated that only during wartime does the government bother to censor commercial codes.
Commercial codes have two main purposes: to cut cable and telegram costs and to make messages confidential. The cheaper business codes may be read by anyone willing to buy a code book; the more expensive private codes are carefully guarded, and code books are given only to trusted officials. The saving in telegraphic charges through the use of codes is easily understood. For example, the five-letter combination LIMUD stands for the phrase, “Cannot return unless you prepay passage.” PYTUO means, “Have collided with an iceberg,” and KUBIT means, “Have lost all my money.” There are more pleasant messages in any commercial code book, but the general idea is to make a few letters do the work of many words. Happily, the telegraph companies smile on this effort, and encourage code users by giving them a 40 percent discount. The discount, plus the saving of words, explains the great saving.
As codes are handled by humans, occasional mistakes crop up. Years ago a Brazilian castor-bean grower wired a New York merchant the code word NFHIU, which means, “Cannot sell.” The message, jumbled en route, arrived as NHFIU, which means, “Sell, if you cannot do better.” The merchant sold, and the castor-bean grower lost a lot of money. The Supreme Court has ruled that the telegraph company isn’t responsible for such mistakes.
Most of these errors happened because there was only a one-letter difference in every five-letter combination. Then William Mitchel revolutionized the commercial-code business by trotting out a code that had two letters different in every combination. From this solid springboard, he jumped to become head of the Acme Code Company, with offices in London, New York and San Francisco, and to be considered by many the top commercial-code man in the world.
Here’s how the codes operate: The sender uses the subject index of his code book to find the phrase and code equivalent he needs for his message. The receiver simply takes his code book and runs down the alphabetically listed combinations until he finds the right one.
Mitchel often is asked to decode personal messages. He thinks the saddest words of code or pen came to him when he decoded one that a young lady received from a man she obviously knew not wisely, but too well. It read: “I am giving you up for my wife.”