"fist": handwriting (1823), radiotelegraphy (1922)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Sun Apr 17 09:41:21 UTC 2005

Malcolm Gladwell's new book _Blink_ repeats the story about how British
interceptors in World War II were able to identify German radio operators
based on each operator's distinctive style of transmitting Morse code,
known as a "fist".  (Excerpt here: <http://www.wnyc.org/books/42607>.)
This historical tidbit has appeared in numerous books, from David Kahn's
_Codebreakers_ to Neal Stephenson's _Cryptonomicon_.

This sense of "fist" apparently derives from an earlier colloquialism
describing a person's handwriting or signature.  Neither sense is in the
OED, though the handwriting sense appears in the 1922 Roget's and RHUD:


The handwriting sense is probably orig. U.K.-- the earliest cites I can
find on the American Periodicals Series are from two different versions of
an article that appeared in _Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine_ (Feb. 1823,
according to the first source):

1823 _The Atheneum_ 1 May 112/2 Mr. Peel writes a sober, scholarlike hand
-- a true Christ-church fist.
1824 _Cincinnati Literary Gazette_ 17 Apr. 124/2 O'Doherty (strange
contradiction!) boasts one of the most easy, and at the same time
finished, autographs in the world; one would swear he was as incapable of
inditing a blackguard ballad as Southey himself. Tickler has a formal
antique fist, that would equally set conjecture at defiance.

Another reprint of a British source is this cite from "The Omnibus" by
Arthur Quiller-Couch, aka "Q" (from _The Speaker_, also published in the
collection _Noughts and Crosses_):

1891 _Littell's Living Age_ 3 Jan. 63/1 [H]e'll never write a hand like
Gabriel's, not if he lives to be a hundred; and he knows it, and knows
I'll be there to remind him of it. Gabriel's was a beautiful fist -- so
small, too, if he chose.

By the late 19th century the handwriting sense was in common usage in the
U.S. as well:

1888 _National Police Gazette_ 23 Jun. 2/2 Some weeks ago Cora Tinnie, the
plump, pert and pretty, was asked to scrawl her scrawl in an autograph
album. She turned the pages and found on one the handwriting of John L.
Sullivan. The ex-champion occupied almost the entire page with his big
1891 _Boston Globe_  7 Jan. 3/7 (heading) Famed "fists" sold. Autograph
letters under the hammer.
1891 _Boston Globe_ 8 Mar. 18/6 Here's a new kind of problem: a famous
man's signature. Every reader of The Globe has heard a thousand times of
the man who writes his name thus: [Illegible signature, with caption:]
"His Beautiful Fist."
1900 _Chicago Tribune_ 3 Jun. 50/4 Those were days of profanity and drink,
and no end of printers' yarns are yet extant among the old ones of the
place in regard to the awful "fist" written by some of the men whose names
are immortal in history, and that without the assistance of the Record.
1912 _New York Times_ 26 May (Magazine) 2/3 Conkling was a fine penman --
one of the big commanding "fists" like John Hancock's.
1916 _Los Angeles Times_ 18 Jun. II4/6 And that man of God tried to read
his own fist. But the ink was cold. And the writer was absent-of-the-mind,
and could not remember what he had meant to write about.
1917 _Atlanta Constitution_ 19 Aug. (Magazine) 11/3 J.K. Ottley, vice
president of the Fourth National bank, has a fist that is neatness
personified, even if you do have to go to headquarters to get it

The earliest cites I can find on Proquest for the radiotelegraphic sense
are from the Washington Post's amateur radio column:

1922 _Washington Post_ 16 Apr. 14/1 One professional who picked up 6AJH on
board a steamship 500 miles north of Seattle, bound for Nome, Alaska, has
written to ask personal particulars about the man "with the best sending
fist" that he ever listened to.
1923 _Washington Post_ 23 Dec. 18/2 3JJ has a beautiful "fist," and with
his side-swiper key usually steps along at about 25 or 30 words a minute.

I haven't found an explicit link between the two senses of "fist", though
a few cites suggest a possible transitional sense, referring to the
handwriting of a telegrapher (or "telegrafer" to use the Tribune's
charming orthografy):

1931 _Washington Post_ 11 Jan. S10/2 Telegraph operators are traditionally
expert penmen, although they do not, as a rule employ the conventional
systems of handwriting. Their work, especially when nearly all messages
were written down by hand, developed a distinctive type of writing
characterized by great legibility and exceptional speed. To perpetuate the
art of writing, the "op's fist" in this day of typewriters and mechanical
recording of messages the Railroad Man's Magazine conducted a penmanship
contest. ... The judges ... were dumbfounded to find that they had picked
the "fist" of a girl over entries of men who have been handling the Morse
code for half a century.
1950 _Chicago Tribune_ 17 Oct. II4/2 There are other definite formations
used by telegrafers. One finds them all in the handwriting of Harold L.
Gast of Genoa City, Wis. He writes the typical telegrafers fist
recognizable anywhere.

Here are some additional cites describing the signature-like nature of the
radiotelegrapher's "fist":

1932 _New York Times_ 7 Feb. X14/1 The Federal radio men are so expert in
their parts in this invisible drama that they can recognize the "fist" of
operators at illegal stations by the characteristic way the dots and
dashes are formed.
1949 _Washington Post_ 28 Nov. 6/4 Operators developed a "fist" or method
of sending which was as individualistic as handwriting.
1951 _Washington Post_ 7 Jun. 14/4 Other telegraphers can recognize each
man in the record by his style or "fist." Any Morse man worth his salt has
a distinctive manner of clicking the sending key -- a sort of aural
signature, says Cahall.
1961 _Washington Post_ 26 Mar. E2/1 A "brass pounder" with a good fist is
worth his weight in gold on the high seas but he is almost obsolete on
land. A brass pounder is a telegrapher who taps out the dot-dash Morse
code on a single key. Each has his own fist, or personal style of sending.

--Ben Zimmer

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