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Wilf Popoff

Wasted Words: The Origins of Texting

Is digital discourse destroying the English language along with civilization? Does texting portend doom?

Let’s not be so hasty: I often read letters from the past — for example, the 19th-century correspondence of Bertrand Russell’s family.1 These aristocrats (Russell’s grandfather was twice the British prime minister) habitually took shortcuts in their numerous epistles, presumably to save on ink and paper.

Their missives are laced with ampersands and abbreviations: yr (your), shd (should), wd (would), recd (received), fr (from, father), thr (through). The use of apostrophes and periods was arbitrary.

In the following century, another British prime minister embraced shorthand when writing to his wife.2 Churchill, a stout defender of the Queen’s English, was an ampersand addict and resorted to the usual economies as well as: vy (very), yrself (yourself), wh (which), gt (great) and evy (every).

These shortcuts typify an age when the middle and upper classes wrote frequently and either could not afford secretaries or didn’t trust them with personal correspondence. Most were wary of the telephone, a boon to biographers. Telegrams are devoid of abbreviations, as one paid by the word: vy and very cost the same.

Of course, these ageless letters are not as arcane as today’s texts: 2moro (tomorrow), BRB (be right back), BCNU (be seeing you), GR8 (great) or L8R (later). But texters have a greater burden. As danah boyd tells us, young people have to cope with as many as 3,000 messages a month.3 No wonder they take more shortcuts!

To put this figure in context, over their long marriage the Churchills exchanged 1,700 letters, notes, telegrams and memos, although they corresponded with others as well.

Shaw is said to have written a quarter of a million letters and postcards before he died at 94. He employed a secretary, so word abbreviations in them are rare. One of boyd’s texters could match that in a similarly long life; however, comparing a text of a few characters with a letter of several hundred words is absurd.

But our language endured the abuses of the past, and I believe it will survive the carnage of our digital age.


Love it or hate it? What are your thoughts about the rampant use of shortcuts and abbreviations in modern writing?

Previous “Wasted Words” post: Don’t Meddle With Shakespeare.

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1 The Amberley Papers: Bertrand Russell’s Family Background, 2 vols., edited by Bertrand and Patricia Russell. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1937.

2 Speaking for Themselves: The Personal Letters of Winston and Clementine Churchill, edited by their daughter Mary Soames. London: Doubleday, 1998.

3 It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.

6 Comments on “Wasted Words: The Origins of Texting”

  • Anita Jenkins


    Wonderful, Wilf. Keep writing for Editors Weekly – your contributions are a treat.

    The language belongs to those who speak it. We can no more tell them how to communicate than we can tell them how to walk. Well, I guess some young women have been told to practice walking with a book on their head…

    • Paul Buckingham


      Walking with a book on your head: an amusing technique! I prefer to practise reading with boots on my head.

      Thanks for appreciating the blog, Anita. It means a lot to the writers and blog team alike.

  • Thanks for such a level-headed post, Wilf. Abbreviations will always be handy shortcuts for those in the know. Those who fear textese forget that texting is a specialized language with its own conventions, like the mysterious Rx’s of doctors and pharmacists, the acronym-heavy lingo of the military, or the curious shorthand once shared by telegraph operators:

    • Paul Buckingham


      That’s a good point, Frances. While there may be some spillage from textese to more formal styles, the mental boundaries we place between writing styles help to slow the trend significantly, I assume.

      • Paul Buckingham


        PS. The term ring-fencing springs to mind—that is, we ring-fence textese in our minds because its role in our lives is so unique.

    • Anita Jenkins


      Re: military abbreviations, FUBAR!

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