Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Mon Dec 7 14:54:15 UTC 2009

In 1987 or '88 I gave a talk on slang that mentioned the word _snafu_, which
I related to the Second World War.  At the end of the talk, and elderly
gentleman (i.e., even older than I am now) approached me with some hitherto
unpublished information about the term

He explained that he'd worked as a telegrapher for a California newspaper in
the late 1930's.  At that time, news agencies still sent reports via Morse,
and his job was to man the code machine in the wee hours and copy any

Needless to say, there was a lot of dead time on the job.  During these
periods, he told me, telegraphers would often fight boredom by exchanging
unathorized private messages.  Among the various conventional acronyms then
in use, he said, and which he learned at that time, was _SNAFU_, which he
always associated with telegraphy.  He said it was usually used as a
one-word reply to the question, "What's new?"

This all sounds very plausible to me, but after 25 years I've discovered no
corroboration whatsoever.  (Not that I've been in touch with any other 1930s
telegraphers.)  Memory being what it is, he may have retrofitted _SNAFU_ to
the 1930s - perhaps after telegraphy experience during WWII.  It is a fact,
though, that Morse operators do use many arcane acronyms and codes. (See,

Does anyone have any knowledge of  pre-1941 usage of _SNAFU_ by telegraphers
or anybody else?


"There You Go Again...Using Reason on the Planet of the Duck-Billed

The American Dialect Society -

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