Get your mind out of the gutter—that title has nothing to do with porn, it’s wirespeak for “an analysis piece with accompanying photographs.” Read all about it at Mike Feinsilber’s Writing Easy: Unearthing a Lost Language, an explication of “the jargon that Associated Press and its erstwhile strongest competitor in those days, United Press, independently devised for internal communications. Its purpose was to save time—and money.” It’s based on what sounds like an interesting book:

In 1997, four years before his death, hurrying before all this was lost, Richard Harnett, a retired reporter and bureau manager in San Francisco for 36 years, wrote and self-published Wirespeak: Codes and Jargon of the News Business. He printed 500 copies and figured he’d be lucky to sell half of them. This blogpost draws from Harnett’s work. His book is out of print, although Amazon lists used copies at three-figure prices.
I never met Harnett, the son of a traveling dry-goods salesman in North Dakota, but I uppicked the phone and interviewed him in 1997, the year his book was published. He said these codewords were used as much for esprit as for saving words. “If you could use them, it meant you were in the know,” he said.

There’s some history and a good story or two, and a comment with further details by Paul (who frequently comments here as well and who sent me the link). Outcheck soonest!
And speaking of porn, don’t miss Maev Kennedy’s Guardian piece on the latest Bad Sex Award shortlist. In general that award tends to annoy me—it seems to me they seize on any attempt at literary writing, whether bad or not, and don’t really notice when a writer is deliberately being funny (as in the last nominee quoted, Nicholas Coleridge’s “In seconds the duke had lowered his trousers and boxers and positioned himself across a leather steamer trunk, emblazoned with the royal arms of Hohenzollern Castle. ‘Give me no quarter,’ he commanded. ‘Lay it on with all your might'”), but the Craig Raine quote that includes the phrase “Like a wubbering springboard” is so hilarious it justifies the existence of the award all by itself. (Thanks, Conrad!)


  1. The counterpart of the thumbsucker is the goat-choker, a story so packed with facts and nothing but that nobody could possibly have the slightest interest in it. Academic papers like this have been called cow (euphemistic for cowshit, the opposite of bullshit).

  2. — 30 — the end, reminds me of the Jack Webb movie of that name, which I saw in the fifties. In fact, I saw four and was mightily impressed. How could anyone talk so fast and long?

  3. Cablese was invented when it cost as much as 50 cents a word to send a message abroad by undersea cable. Cable companies permitted the combining of words—as long as they didn’t go beyond 15 letters. Thus “Tokyoward.” Thus “antiauthorities” for “against the authorities.”
    Similarly, there’s the cablese use of the “un-” prefix to mean “(do) not” (as in “unknow” for “do not know”). More here.

  4. If three figures is too rich, there’s a bunch of For entertaining cablese (among other things), in Waugh’s Scoop.

  5. marie-lucie says

    So is I uppicked the phone a case of Cablese, or is the writer just having fun?

  6. So is I uppicked the phone a case of Cablese, or is the writer just having fun?
    The writer is having fun, as I was with my “Outcheck soonest.”

  7. I met “upbumkick” at school. The detail is obviously not American.

  8. And, of course, Evelyn Waugh in Abyssinia, told to investigate the story of a British nurse killed by bombing: “SEND TWO HUNDRED WORDS UPBLOWN NURSE”. The story, alas, turned out not to be true, and Waugh cabled back “NURSE UNUPBLOWN”.

  9. I so expected to read about ejaculate art. The “X cum X” construction shouldn’t be used in the (post-) modern world…

  10. I confess I immediately thought of Aleister Crowley’s poetry volume, recently referenced on another blog, White Stains.

  11. To Percival Lowell:
    His reply:

  12. Upblown is pointless. It’s the same number of letters as blownup.’Dead’ is shorter.

  13. “Upblown” might be pointless in another context, but not here: “dead nurse” could be anybody, but “upblown nurse” refers to a specific accident victim that the newspaper is aware of. Anyway it is the number of words that counts in a telegram, not the number of letters (up to a certain maximum).

  14. In that case why write upblown instead of blownup?

  15. That’s the style. Why say “blown up” instead of “upblown”? Because that’s the way we talk. In wirespeak it’s the other way round.

  16. There seems to be a lot of similarity between Wirespeak and Newspeak. Here’s Winston Smith getting started on a day’s work:
    “Winston examined the four slips of paper which he had unrolled. Each contained a message of only one or two lines, in the abbreviated jargon — not actually Newspeak, but consisting largely of Newspeak words — which was used in the Ministry for internal purposes. They ran:
    times 17.3.84 bb speech malreported africa rectify
    times 19.12.83 forecasts 3 yp 4th quarter 83 misprints verify current issue
    times 14.2.84 miniplenty malquoted chocolate rectify
    times 3.12.83 reporting bb dayorder doubleplusungood refs unpersons rewrite fullwise upsub antefiling”

  17. I like “doubleplusungood”. So much better than “catastrophic”.
    I think “miniplenty” would have been a very useful euphemism for the Republican candidate to use in the recent campaign. Everyone lives in some kind of plenty!

  18. Miniplenty is short for Ministry of Plenty, that is, of food, gasoline, cigarette, etc. rationing.

  19. marie-lucie says

    JC: miniplenty : thanks for the correction! I read the book but that was quite some time ago. I thought that “miniplenty” meant something like ‘poverty’, as opposed for a potential word “maxiplenty” which would apply to the 1%. But I guess that “mini” and “maxi” were not used in Orwell’s time. I still think that those words would be quite useful!

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