I’m sure they must run classes to teach kids all these annoying short-hand codes for their texting. I guess the need to compress messages within the limit of 160 characters had a lot to do with it. I have to admit that I tend to use some text shorthand too but different from this gr8 stuff. More of that in a second. But here’s a little fact for you to show you what a man of foresight I really am. One of the guys who developed the SMS standard was a guy from Cellnet called Kevin Holley and back when I was Head of Marketing there, I was shown this new and additional way of communicating by mobile phone. Despite being a lot cheaper than a voice message I still found it unlikely to believe that anyone, other than our engineers, would choose to resort to typing a message when they could just simply call and speak to someone. Didn’t they know that mail was dead? Spanner-heads – pah! Within 15 years 4 trillion SMS messages were being sent each year. A multi-£billion business in its own right. Er oops…
Anyway back to my shorthand influences. When I was a lot younger and working for the international telecommunications part of the GPO, my job involved making daily contact with counterparts in telecoms departments overseas. It was all to do with contract terms on private international circuits being leased by major companies between their various international offices. This was way before the onset of office computers and the internet (although spookily in this role I was working on the leases for a US defence/research/education network called Arpanet which was eventually to transform into the internet, dontcha know) and so we resorted to a service called telex, a switched network of teleprinters for sending text based messages. This little doozy of a teleprinter was the 1970’s hi-tech equivalent of the smartphone and it took a trained operator to run it…
Oh you sexy thang.
The usage procedures were as archaic as the machine. The GPO was part of the civil service where employment rather than business efficiency was the prime imperative. If you wanted a letter typed it was necessary to draft something by hand (and neatly), specify the degree of urgency (and exaggerated claims resulted in you being disciplined), with drafts submitted within a brown re-usable envelope and plopped in to an office out-tray where an old guy would trundle up 2/3 times a day to collect the envelopes and deliver them via the post room to the typing pool. There a formidable and frustrated superintendant of the pool would assess your level of urgency and assign it to one of the girls in the pool. If you were lucky you’d get it back 3 or 4 days later. If you were extremely lucky it had no typos and could be sent out immediately but the girls knew that the odd mistake would need amending, thus protecting their jobs, and the whole process would start again. If you were brave you would risk going to see the superintendant to check out whether she’d sanction a quicker delivery of your typing work. This was in front of a baying pack of some 40-50 young all-female typists all eager to embarrass the pants of a coy junior manager. I think I learned all of my thin flirting skills with the supers in the typing pool. They were all 20+ years my senior but I got on with them all. My mum taught me the importance of good manners and it paid off in spades in the pool.
The situation with the telex messages was almost as bad. There was a specific telex form from a large green pad that had to be completed with a bewildering set of pro-forma details before you got to the message itself. The finished thing had to be left ina separate tray from the typing requests and the outbound internal message envelopes. It was still the same little old guy who collected them and they all went into the same collecting basket/trolley. After many months I shockingly became aware that he was open to some persuasion to short circuit deliveries. He was old and earned bugger all so why this came as a shock I do not know now. I was v naive business-wise.
I soon realised that it took v little to get old Albert to do a quick drop for you into the telex operators’ office but, Soprano-like, he needed to have his beak wetted to perform a service. I was getting the hang of office life. Having said that it took me over a year to realise that SF – a departmental peer of mine and now living in the US but still one of my oldest mates – was stealing in to the teleprinter office after the operators left at 4.45pm to type his own messages and completely short-circuit Albert’s little racket. SF was a sharp London lad and always light years ahead of me in terms of street smarts in those days.
But there was still the message. Telex language protocols were based on older telegraphic procedures where text was charged by its length. So a universal 5 letter code system was developed to replace regular business language phrases with shorthand. So, for example, instead of saying ‘with reference to your message of ‘ you could use the term WALPU or WALOS for ‘re our message of ‘. There were loads of other codes like TUHRU (say if in agreement), TUNHO (we agree), TUNVU (you’re having a giraffe) and things like UPBAG (for ‘fyi’ – perhaps it would have been more efficient to use the latter) and MAHPO (why the frig was it not delivered? – one of my personal favorites).
The daily trick amongst we junior staff was to try and send a message using either full code or highly abbreviated text. So all our written messages even notes to each other became truncated eg TX for thanks, PLSE for please, CCTS for circuits, GRT NWS for oh I say that’s marvellous to hear, O FK for oops, I may have made a big mistake etc. A finished message read like something written in Finnish interspersed with bits of Esperanto.
And this was cutting edge business comms. Seems like a million years ago now but lots of it has stuck with me and finds its way onto my text messages these days. So there you are. If you’re a keen texter let me know your favourite bit of shorthand.