On Writing: Unearthing a Lost Language

By Mike Feinsilber

Assume it is the 1950s, and two guys in white shirts, ties undone, cigarettes dangling from lips, are in United Press International bureaus, one in Tokyo, one in New York, communicating with each other. The teletype machine in Tokyo sounds three bells and these words clack out:


These were marching orders from headquarters to the fellow in Tokyo.

Tokyo sighs and replies with a word: “ONWORKING.”

Years ago, this imaginary exchange might have been plausible. It is written in vanishing languages—partly “cablese,” partly the Phillips Code, which itself was a shorthand version of the Morse Code, and partly in “wirespeak,” 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.

The idea behind wirespeak was to condense words so that one stood for several. Thus “Tokyoward”  meant “to Tokyo,” “smorning” meant “this morning,” “sansstop” meant “nonstop,” “eyeball arrival” meant “be on hand to witness the arrival of the secretary of state and his wife.”

And “onworking” meant “Okay, I’ll get to work on the news analysis (that’s the ‘thumbsucker’) you’re demanding.” “Cum art” meant have a photographer at the airport too.

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.

Wirespeak combined and condensed words, catchwords and abbreviations, added a dash of made-up shorthand, and some terms invented in 1879 by Walter Philllips, who created the Phillips Code to speed up (or “upspeed”) the transmission of copy by Morse telegraph.

Sometimes it bred disaster. As Harnett told it, “In Phillips Code, YAP was ‘yesterday afternoon.’ There was an island in the Western Pacific named Yap. When it came into the news during World War II, a telegrapher taking a correspondent’s story (dictated to him, presumably), made it the Island of Yesterday Afternoon.”

One chapter of the book is on the Morse Code, which was devised by Samuel Finley Breese Morse, who invented a way of interrupting an electric current in a controlled manner to send short or long pulses. Morse came up with 46 combinations of dots and dashes—one combination for each letter, one for each number, and 10 for punctuation marks and the like. Trained telegraphers were at either end of the wire, one to translate words into dots and dashes and transmit them, the other, equipped with earphones and a typewriter, at the other end to reformulate the dots and dashes into words.

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.”

Giving away secrets no longer kept, Harnett reprinted samples of the codes both AP and UP employed for confidential messages. The codes were printed in codebooks, kept locked and available only to top brass.

In AP’s code, “levit,” “liban” or “liber” stood for the competition, UP. And UP’s names for AP were “castor,” “henagar” and “wingate,” all terms the origins of which are lost.

The rank and file had their own nicknames for the competition. AP used “opsn,” standing for “opposition”; UP used “Rox,” said to be a play on the last name of Melville E. Stone, who for over two decades was AP’s general manager.

Reporters also used wirespeak irreverently. UPI legend told of the overworked and underpaid reporter in a far-off bureau, who sent his resignation to New York, telling the bosses to “upstick job.”

One wirespeak word evoked fear in Unipressers everywhere: “downhold.” UPI was a profit-making company unlike its bigger competitor, AP, which is a cooperative owned by the newspapers it served. New York periodically sent out wolf-crying messages to bureaus to downhold expenses. A downhold (it became a noun) meant no overtime pay and an all-around belt-tightening. To this day, former Unipressers conduct “Downhold Club” events, evenings of nostalgia. And they operate a blog, the downhold wire, to recall old times.

One of my UPI bosses, Jack Fox, used to tell me of the time he was a newbie alone one night in the Kansas City bureau. His bureau chief was Walter Cronkite. Fox got word of a fire at the stockyards across town—potentially a huge story. He called Cronkite, saying he’d close the bureau and take a taxi to the stockyards to cover the fire.

A long pause. Finally Cronkite spoke: “Jack, couldn’t you take the bus?”

Harnett’s longest discussion, four pages, concerns “30,” the symbol some writers still put at the end of their stories. It means “the end.” Its origins have long been the subject of after-hours discussion among news people, but Harnett sided with the most accepted theory—that “30″ was borrowed from a telegraphers’ code adopted by Western Union in 1859. In that code, “73s” meant best regards; “95″ preceded an urgent message; and “1″ meant very important.

So there’s only one decent way to end this account:


Mike Feinsilber joined UP in 1957, and stayed long enough to witness the sun set on the use of wirespeak. In 1980, he jumped to Rox.

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