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 assward.”

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:

When Technology Spurred Overhead to Victory

By Marc Wilson

One of the great stories of Colorado newspaper lore is the report that Will Overhead “won” the 1933 Indianapolis 500 auto race.

The technology and economics in the middle of the Great Depression caused The Associated Press to offer what was called “the Pony Wire.” Instead of installing a teletype machine, the AP offered small daily newspapers the option of dialing in to a conference call.

An AP editor would read the “top of the report” – updating the major news and sports events of the day. Pony Wire clients listened in to the call and madly typed notes. Pony Wire customers typically subscribed to a major regional newspaper, and could legally “lift” AP stories, and then freshen up the story with details given during the Pony Wire conference call. These were the “hot lead” days when Linotype machines set type.

The Walsenburg (Colo.) World-Independent was a customer of the AP’s Pony Wire. And this is the story of how it became part of newspaper lore.

Walsenburg is the county seat of rural Huerfano County, whose major landmark is the magnificent snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Range in south-central Colorado. The county’s population has rarely climbed over 10,000.

Back in the early 1930s, little daily newspapers in rural markets were the main source of national, state and regional news and sports. Walsenburg didn’t have its own radio station. Some residents subscribed to the big city Denver Post, but other sources of news were scarce – and, of course, fax machines, TV, cable and Twitter hadn’t been invented.

Needed the latest news

So, if the farmers, ranchers and shopkeepers in Huerfano County wanted to keep up with the news, they likely read the World-Independent. Major sporting events, including heavyweight fights and the Indy 500, were major drivers of newsstand sales.

On Memorial Day 1933, the AP Pony Wire call occurred early in the afternoon. The call likely carried news updates about Germany’s Nazi Party introducing a law to legalize eugenic sterilization, and reports about the World’s Fair in Chicago, Congress passing the New Deal Federal Securities Act and possibly an update on Walt Disney’s release of the cartoon “The Three Little Pigs.”

The big sporting event of the day, of course, was the Indianapolis 500. But the race was only at its midway point when the Pony Wire call was completed.

Being attuned to his readers’ needs, the World-Independent’s editor on the Pony Wire stayed on the line after the regular call ended and asked if there was any way possible to get the final results of the Indy 500 before his deadline.

The AP – ever obliging to its members – agreed to help.

The rub

The AP Denver bureau confirmed that it would get the paper the final results by sending a Western Union telegraph to the World-Independent, which read: “Will Overhead Indy 500 Winner.”

In the vernacular of the day, “will overhead” was verbal shorthand for “we will telephone you.”

But the editor at the World-Independent (whose name has been lost to history) read the telegram to mean that Will Overhead had won the Indianapolis 500.

So the May 31 World-Independent sports page carried this headline:

“Overhead Wins Indianapolis Race”

The World-Independent story, written by a newspaper staffer, read:

“Indianapolis, Ind. May 30 (AP) – Will Overhead won the Indianapolis Memorial Day race today. At the two hundred fifty mile post, Babe Stapp was leading the string of roaring cars, but gave way to Overhead on the last half of the 500 mile grind.”

Lore has it that the story claimed Overhead was an unknown rookie who roared past all the great veterans to win “the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”


Times and technology change. Back in 1933, U.S. newspapers owned a 48 percent share of all U.S. advertising. Almost all households received a daily paper and some got two. There were few other means to receive news, sports, features, stock results and other information.

Little daily newspapers that got their news from the Pony Wire flourished.

Today, with the advent of multiple technologies to deliver and receive information, newspapers sell only about 12 percent of all U.S. advertising. Few people use printed newspapers as their prime source of news, sports and finance.

The six-day-a-week Walsenburg World-Independent is now the weekly Huerfano World Journal. Co-publishers Gretchen Sporleder Orr and Brian Orr depend on coverage of local news and sports to keep readers and advertisers in the fold.

“For many years, we had Will Overhead Days in Walsenburg, but now most of the people who remember the story are gone,” Brian Orr said.

By the way, Louis Meyer won the 1933 Indianapolis 500.

But I will always cherish the notion that – thanks to the technology of the day – Will Overhead won the Indy 500 that year.

Marc Wilson is a columnist for newsandtech.com.