August 06, 2007

Taking down the hermeneutic lightning rod

In response to my earlier post about -30- as journalistic jargon for "the end" ("February 30", 8/5/2007), Mark Eli Kalderon noted that web search turns up at least 10 distinct stories about the origin of "this obscure piece of markup" -- the traditional closing time of telegraph offices was 3:00; wire service employees were allowed 30 telegrams a day; 30 ems was the maximum length of a linotype line; Judas was paid 30 pieces of silver; the Spartans appointed 30 tyrants to rule Athens; "XXX" was misinterpreted as roman numerals; etc., etc. -- and asked "Why is it a hermeneutic lightning rod?"

I don't know. But I believe that I now know the true history, thanks to email from Boyd D. Garrett Sr. and Charlie Clingen.

The note from Mr. Garrett arrived first:

When I read your post about the use of -30- to indicate the end of a news story, it rang a few Amateur Radio bells in the back of my head.

Back in 1859, Western Union established some standard numeric codes to be used for common telegraphic conventions (you can see the entire list here.) Telegraphy operators then and now have always sought ways to keep transmissions as brief as possible, since telegraphy is a relatively slow and highly manual mode of operation. A few of these codes are still in use today ("73" being the most common, used among Amateur Radio operators to say "best regards").

My speculation is that this telegraphy convention moved into the journalism arena with the advent of "wire stories" sent by telegraphers, so they naturally put the "30" at the end of a news article to clearly indicate the end.

I don't read Language Log enough, but when I do, I always find something that piques my interest, such as your post that generated this response. Keep up the good work!

Well, 73 right back atcha, Mr. Garrett!

Hard on its heels was a note from Mr. Clingen:

According to the ARRL (American Radio Relay League), it was also used by Western Union before the Civil war, and subsequently adopted by the amateur/ham radio folks, although by then the representation had morphed into "SK" in modern International Morse Code. Nowadays it is used as a "prosign", a brief code, embedded in the Morse code text message, and the meaning has remained essentially unchanged -- end of message.

[The AARL Ham Radio History page says:]

Many of the expressions and procedure signals still in use in radiotelegraph had their origins in the early days of the landline telegraph--long before Marconi sent his letter "S" across the Atlantic.

In sending formal messages by c.w., the first thing a beginner hears is "don't send punctuation. Separate the parts of the address from each other with the prosign AA." This is ironic, because in the American Morse Code the sound didahdidah is a comma and was doubtless the origin of our prosign. Originally, a correctly addressed letter was punctuated with commas following the name and the street address, each of which was (and still is) on a separate line although the commas have been dropped, even in mail addresses on letters. The comma was transmitted by Morse operators and thus, AA came to mean that the receiving operator should "drop down one line" when sent after each part of the address and it is so defined in the operating manuals of the time.

Our familiar prosign SK also had its origin in landline Morse. In the Western Union company's "92 code" used even before the American Civil War, the number 30 meant "the end. No more." It also meant "good night." It so happens that in Landline Morse, 30 is sent didididahdit daaah, the zero being a long dash. Run the 30 together and it has the same sound as SK.

(Hey, a morse code eggcorn!) While I haven't been able to verify the historical accuracy of the Signal Corps Association and Amateur Radio Relay League pages, they certainly seem authentic. Maybe there was some earlier history to the choice of "30" to mean "no more -- the end", or maybe it was just a random numerical assignment. But the path from 1859 to the journalistic use documented in the 1895 Funk's Standard Dictionary appear to be plain.

The NYT Corrections: For the Record item said:

Although many no longer use it or even know what it means, some journalists continue to debate its origin. A popular theory is that it was a sign-off code developed by telegraph operators. Another tale is that reporters began signing their articles with 30 to demand a living wage of $30 per week.

Hermeneutics aside, it looks like historical truth in this case is on the side of telegraphy. Didididahdit daaah.

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 6, 2007 04:39 PM