? !

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Wed Aug 28 22:19:56 UTC 2013

Thanks for sharing cites for this fun class of anecdotes. A variant
was published in 1851 a few years before the 1854 version you listed.
This version has been reprinted multiple times, e.g., in 1885.

Date: August 28, 1851
Newspaper: Springfield Daily Republican (Springfield Republican)
Page: 2
Column: 3
Description: Freestanding filler item
Newspaper location: Springfield, Massachusetts
Database: Genealogybank

[Begin excerpt]
In the briefest correspondence known,
only two figures were used; the first contained a
note of interrogation (?), implying, "is there any
news?" The answer was a cipher (0) "None."
This was clever; but neighbor Shuttleworth, in
Nottingham market-place, beats it. He has on
his chimney, two large T's, one painted black,
the other green, to intimate that he sells black
and green teas,
[End excerpt]

Here is a link to an 1885 instance decades later:


On Wed, Aug 28, 2013 at 4:48 PM, Baker, John <JBAKER at stradley.com> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Baker, John" <JBAKER at STRADLEY.COM>
> Subject:      ?  !
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> The shortest correspondence is said to have been between Victor Hugo and his publisher.  In the version appearing in William S. Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities 600 (1892) (Google Books), it went as follows:
> "But the shortest correspondence ever known took place between Victor Hugo and his publisher, just after the publication of "Les Misérables."  The poet, impatient to learn of the success of the book, sent off a letter which contained only the following:
>         ?
> And he received the following entirely satisfactory answer:
>         !"
> Less plausibly, the story has also been told of Oscar Wilde and some unspecified book (presumably The Picture of Dorian Gray, but the versions I've seen don't say).  Sometimes the correspondence is supposed to have been by telegram, taking advantage of the per-word rates.
> Is there any knowledge of the origin of the story?  I assume it's not really a factual account of correspondence between Hugo and his publisher.  I see the following in 3 Yankee Notions 363 (1854) (Google Books):
> "But the shortest correspondence on record is the one between an American merchant in want of news and his London agent.  The letter ran thus:
>         ?
> And the answer thus:
>         0
> Being the briefest possible intimation that there was nothing stirring."
> John Baker
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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