The international diplomatic community was abuzz this week, reeling from "Cablegate," the scandalous revelation of secret diplomatic cables by Wikileaks. But what's a "cable" anyway, in this day and age? Our resident linguist Neal Whitman investigates.

After days of preemptive damage control by the Pentagon, the latest dump of sensitive information by WikiLeaks arrived this week: 250,000 diplomatic cables containing not-intended-for-public-consumption political assessments, described as "raw", "candid," and the kind of analysis "that any government engages in as part of effective foreign relations" (in the words of Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Elizabeth King).

When I read that last bit, I knew this must be embarrassing stuff. However, I was surprised that there even existed a quarter of a million communications via transoceanic telegraph cables at all, let alone that many sensitive ones, in these days of email and instant messaging. To scrape up that many of them, I figured WikiLeaks must be releasing cablegrams from the last 100 years or so, in which case you'd think only a few hundred at most would still be that sensitive. When I found out that most were from within the last three years, I had to wonder: Exactly what kind of diplomats were sending cablegrams in the 21st century? For that matter, who in the general population still uses the telegraph at all, a device so antiquated that American Telephone & Telegraph officially expunged it from its name by becoming AT&T?

Dave Wilton, who wrote the book Word Myths and has a master's degree in national security policy studies, had the explanation in an entry on his website. But first, some history to bring us to the point where Wilton's definition comes in.

In the mid-1860s, the first durable transatlantic submarine telegraph cable was completed, and by the end of the decade, the portmanteau (i.e. blended word) cablegram had been born, combining the nouns cable and telegram. The Oxford English Dictionary's first citation, from 1868, specifically notes its novelty: "The new word cablegram is used by a New York contemporary to characterise a telegraphic dispatch." The Corpus of Historical American English pushes the date back a couple of years to 1866, in Jane G. Austin's novel Outpost: "'Hello, a cablegram!' exclaimed the young inventor. 'It must be from Mr. Illingway, in Africa."

The shorter word cable had been created by 1883 (going by the OED's data). The OED gives its origin as cablegram, which is certainly possible. There are many cases of one element of a portmanteau or compound word imbuing the other element with enough of its own meaning that the one element eventually gets dropped. For example, molest nearly always refers to the sexual molestation these days, and many speakers use TMJ not to refer to the temporomandibular joint, but rather to temporomandibular joint disorder. So for cablegram to be clipped to the shorter cable is very likely what happened.

On the other hand, the telegraph system was also known as the wire, with the verb wire meaning to send something by telegraph, and the concomitant noun wire meaning a message sent that way. In the same way, messages sent by submarine cables were said to be sent by cable, or simply cabled (first OED citation, 1871). If wire can refer to the system of sending messages, the act of sending them, or the messages themselves, it would be natural for cable to have the same ability. In fact, it would have been strange for it to have only the first two meanings and not the third.

In any case, whether by clipping from cablegram or by metaphorical extension from cable, the noun cable with the meaning of a message sent by submarine telegraph cables was in place by 1883, the date of its first OED citation.

Now we come to Wilton's definition, where a semantic shift becomes apparent. In a post on from November 2002 on diplomatic jargon, he writes:

Cable, n., a message giving instructions to a mission or reporting results back to a capital. Diplomats still refer to them as cables regardless of the actual means of communication....

When the subject came up earlier this week on the American Dialect Society mailing list, Wilton gave a similar answer: "Cable is diplomatic jargon for a message between an embassy and the capital. It once referred to submarine telegraphic traffic, but now it's done via internet, satellite, and other means...."

Wilton's answer raises the question of what cables were called before the advent of submarine telegraph cables. The answer seems to be simply diplomatic dispatches, or telegraphic dispatches if appropriate.

When did cablegram/cable get restricted semantically to diplomatic realm? It's hard to say, since the word cable has the non-telegraphy meanings that get in the way of Internet searches. It seems to have begun sometime around the World War II years. A search of the Google News Archive shows that mentions of personal cablegrams tend to be from prior to the 1920s. The phrase business cablegram(s) gets about a dozen hits between 1900 and in 1940, and none thereafter. Diplomatic cablegram gets its start in the 1930s and notches several hits per decade from the 1950s to the 1980s, before disappearing by the end of the 90s. Diplomatic cable(s) shows up throughout the 20th century, but really starts to pick up in the 1940s, and continues to be used steadily up to the present.

Regardless of when the semantic shift occurred, it is strongly felt now. Translator Paul Frank, who brought up the topic of cable on the ADS mailing list, made the point with this comparison:

The diplomatic component appears to me to be essential. The International Committee of the Red Cross, for example, is headquartered in Geneva and has missions in most of the world's trouble spots, but it doesn't receive "cables" from its field offices (or missions, in ICRC jargon). It receives classified and encrypted messages which are not referred to as "cables"..:; within the ICRC they are called "inter-site messages" or just "messages".

At this point, cable has both narrowed and broadened from its original meaning in the realm of communications. It has narrowed because not just any message sent by cable is referred to as a cable; only diplomatic messages are. It has broadened because as Wilton points out, the messages need not be (in fact, rarely if ever are) sent by cable.

So why do we still call these diplomatic dispatches cables when they no longer have anything to do with cables? As Dave Wilton said in his post to the ADS list, "[T]he outdated term remains, like dialing a phone." Similar semantic changes have occurred with other words. There's blackboard, which referred to something that was originally black, but later green. (In recent years blackboards have finally been giving way to the more aptly named whiteboards and smartboards.) Or xylophone, a word combining the Greek xylos "wood" and phōnē "sound," but which refers to an instrument that is often made of metal now. Semantic fossils like these show that even when something is named for a physical characteristic that changes, if the word is useful enough, it can survive.

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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.

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Comments from our users:

Saturday December 4th 2010, 3:47 AM
Comment by: ThomasK
Just a minor correction: (though gives some interesting references to dictionaries).

[Fixed! Thanks —Ed.]
Friday December 17th 2010, 4:07 PM
Comment by: Licia C. (Milano Italy)
There was an interesting explanation in "What is diplomatic cable" (Reflections on Diplomacy):

One possible reason why the term ‘cable’ remains entrenched in diplomatic language and professional ’sub-consciousness’ is the high importance of cables for the world at the end of nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. Big powers were rushing to lay as many cables as possible in order to create their own global telecommunication infrastructure.


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