An initial 4A?

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Fri Jun 28 16:24:56 UTC 2002

In reading Allen Walker Read's wonderful round-up on the OK corral
(Chapters 10-15 of PADS 86, hot off the press)--great infirmary
reading, as I thought--it occurred to me that his descriptions of the
"craze" among newspapers in Boston, New York, New Orleans, and the
"transmontane" press (as the area between the Alleghenies and Rockies
was known) in the late 1830's and early 1840's for abbreviations and
other "laconics" (see the quote from the Ninewah Gazette of Peru, IL
on p. 140) very closely prefigures traits of the current texting
(txting) language popularized through SMS (short message service,
involving the video display space on cell phones now commonly used in
Europe and East Asia and perhaps making inroads in the US, to the
horror of English teachers and other purists).  I recall hearing a
couple of papers on some of the truncations and initialisms involved,
and checked the web, and my sense is that while this trend began with
e-mail messages (ROTFL and its ilk)--or even earlier in service lingo
(FUBAR, SNAFU)--and was accelerated by habits of AIM [AOL instant
messaging] users (including my undergraduates, it appears, and not
just my teenage kids) it's really picked up with the constraints
imposed by the tiny message space available for txt.  (They don't
call it SMS for 0.)

The AWR data involves "cabalistic" readings (as critics complained at
the time), in that the functions of laconics were not just to save
space but to create and ratify an in-group and confuse outsiders (who
often expressed their irritation with just this fact).  These factors
led to the use of intentionally misrepresented or pseudo-illiterate
initialisms, e.g. K.Y. 'no use', K.G. 'no go', O.W. 'oll wright', and
of course O.K. itself 'oll korrect'.  The appearance of "the three
R's" (for reading, 'ritin, and 'rithmetic) stems from this period.  A
lot of the true initialisms also involved some cabalistic
knowledge--O.F.M. 'our first men', and so on.  (Not to mention nonce
initialisms, including those appearing in print with glosses
attached.)  And then there are the intermediate cases--N.S. for 'nuff
said', ODV 'eau de vie' (later reinterpreted as 'oll done vith', for
when your glass is empty).  There are also other truncations/laconics
that don't involve initialisms as such, e.g. XLNC 'excellence'.  From
a poem reprinted in 1832, "To Miss Catherine Jay, of Utica":

Oh KTJ is far B4
All other maids IC;
Her XLNC I adore
As a lovely NTT.

And then of course there are the waggish unpackings of initialisms,
as in our own bacronyms (FORD = 'found on road dead', PH.D. 'piled
higher and deeper), including the degrees explicated in 1831:
"A.B.--Apt to Blunder", "LL.D.--Licensed to Die Damnably",
"M.D.--Maker of Dead men").

But what struck me in reading this are the parallels (and to some
degree non-parallels) with our own (or our own children's) use of
laconics in AIM/SMS lingo.  Some examples, off the cuff, of what one
site cleverly describes as "Gen-TXT" usage, but as is also noted
elsewhere, has now extended to the business world, electronic crawls,
communications at airports, police communications, etc.:

RU 'are you'
OIC 'Oh, I see'
BBL 'be back later'
INO 'I know'

--RUOK?  'are you OK?'
--Y NY?    'yes, and you?"

Note the use of "inaccurate" initialisms, reinventing the practice of
the 1830's, and the mixture of initialisms, near-initialisms, and
simple truncations, often involving vowel deletion (cf. the 1832
poet's XLNC vs. the modern XLNT, or the relation of our kids' INO,
OIC, etc. and our great(N)-grandparents' usas as detailed by AWR.
One interesting difference is in the alphanumeric mixing of today--

F2T?  'free to talk'
W84ME 'wait for me'
J4F 'just for fun'

--which is almost unparalleled in the citations from c. 1840 that I
reviewed.  Almost, because of that one use of "B4" in the KTJ poem
above.  Nor are there any proto-emoticons as far as I can tell.  Of
course if I were going to do this seriously, I'd have to track down
AWR's sources and look for myself.  (Or at least do an MoA database
search on "B4" and other likely suspects, whatever they might be.)

So, do any listees know of work anticipating what I've been burbling
on about, connecting the
c. 1840 fad/vogue/craze of initialisms with the more modern trends of
c. 2000?  Don't want to step on NE1's toes here.


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