Text messaging, known for "ur" and "lol," may be celebrating its 20th birthday today, but funny abbreviations have been around for much longer. Since ancient times, emerging communications technologies have forced people to develop strange cadences and shortcuts in language.
From telegrams to lonely-hearts ads from the 1700s, here are a few of our favorite shortened ways of saying things from throughout history.
Technology: SMS texting
Invented: Dec. 3, 1992
Why it's abbreviated: It's difficult to type out long words on the dial pad or tiny keyboards on cellphones.
Why it's not so abbreviated: In 2009, Caroline Tagg, then a doctoral student at Birmingham University in the U.K., studied 11,000 text messages sent by 235 people. Tagg, now a lecturer in applied linguistics at Birmingham, found people use unnecessary words, such as "oh" and "erm," just as they would if they were talking. She also found the language of texting interesting and creative in spite of its brevity and non-standard language use. "It is a playful language. Not only are [texters] quite creative, [texting] is also quite expressive," she told the Telegraph, a U.K. newspaper.
Invented: Ancient Roman and Chinese writers used shorthand. In 1888, John Gregg, a New York-based inventor, created the shorthand used most frequently in the U.S. today
Why it's abbreviated: Before voice-recording technology, shorthand helped people write down quotes as they were said.
Video piracy in the 1800s: Most shorthand users today are courtroom stenographers or journalists, and even those are getting rarer. Before the 1870s, however, people used English shorthand for a variety of tasks. Gentlemen and ladies kept diaries in shorthand. Clergymen took shorthand notes so they could steal ideas from others' sermons. And some theater patrons took down entire plays in shorthand, the historical equivalent, according to the London Review of Books, of a video pirate today who takes a small camera into a movie theater.
Invented: May 24, 1844
Why it's abbreviated: Telegraph companies charged people per word, and operators sending telegrams tapped out each letter and abbreviation by hand, in Morse code.
Some Morse code abbreviations: The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' history page has some abbreviations Morse code users developed, such as TU for "thank you," PSE for "please" and WX for "weather." They had a whole series of codes starting with the letter Q, including QRZ for "identify yourself" and QSY for "Please change your operating frequency."
Technology: Dating and other classified ads in newspapers
Invented: Small ads that individuals could buy have appeared in newspapers since the 1700s, including ads that slave owners posted to help track down runaway slaves. "Matrimonial services" in the 1700s helped bachelors look for wives through newspaper ads, though that was considered a little desperate.
Why it's abbreviated: Newspapers have long charged per word for classifieds.
Flashback: One 1997 guide offers a list of common newspaper lonely-hearts abbreviations, including ISO for "in search of," "WW" for widowed and several letters for specifying preferred races.
Technology: Medieval manuscripts
Invented: Some of the earliest illuminated manuscripts were created before the year 800.
Why it's abbreviated: Writing all those manuscripts took a lot of time. Medieval scribes wanted to write more quickly, according to this guide to reading Middle English script. They may have sometimes wanted to save space to make different lines equal in length, Tagg, the linguistics lecturer, wrote to TechNewsDaily in an email.
For example: English-speaking scribes seemed to love to drop letters at the ends of words, replacing them with small marks instead. There were little marks for final Ms, Ns and Rs, as well as for words ending in "er" and "ir." One of the most efficient abbreviations shortened articles that started with "th," such as "the" or "this." Scribes would write a thorn, a v-shaped letter that was pronounced "th," with the final letter of the article above the thorn. "That," for example, would be written as a thorn with a small "t" on top.