Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Origins of Text-Speak, from 1828?

A new exhibit at the British Library on the evolution of English will feature some linguistic play that presages the age of "text-speak." As reported by The Guardian, the exhibit will display a comic poem printed in 1867 with lines like "I wrote 2 U B 4" ("I wrote to you before"). I've investigated this proto-text-speak and have found similar versified examples going all the way back to 1828. [Update: And see the note below for one from 1813!]

The poem in the British Library exhibit is culled from Charles C. Bombaugh's Gleanings From the Harvest-Fields of Literature — you can read it here. (In my puzzling youth, I treasured Bombaugh's Oddities and Curiosities of Words and Literature, reprinted by Dover and edited by Martin Gardner.) Bombaugh didn't write the poem himself, however. Entitled "An Essay to Miss Catharine Jay," it had been floating around in that exact form at least since 1847 in American publications (as here). An earlier version, entitled "To Miss Catherine Jay of Utica," dates back to 1832, as noted by Allen Walker Read in his 1963 article in American Speech, "The First Stage in the History of 'O.K.'"

That 1963 article was one of a series in which Read proved conclusively that OK had emerged out of a kind of "abbreviation play" that was popular in the U.S. in the 1830s — OK originally stood for "all correct" intentionally misspelled as "oll korrect." (Allan A. Metcalf builds on Read's pioneering work in the soon-to-be-published OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word.)

Even before KTJ of UTK (Katie Jay of Utica, or Uticay) came on the scene in the United States, England had LNG of Q (Ellen Gee of Kew) and MLE K of UL (Emily Kay of Ewell), who starred in two tragicomic verses published in 1828 in the London-based New Monthly Magazine. You can read "Dirge, to the Memory of Miss Ellen Gee of Kew" here, and "Elegy to the Memory of Miss Emily Kay (Cousin to Miss Ellen Gee of Kew)" here. These verses (the second one in particular) traveled far and wide, appearing in newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. They very well may have played a role in the American fad for silly abbreviations that gave rise to OK. And that same creative impulse, as David Crystal argues cogently in Txtng: The Gr8 Db8, shaped text-speak a century and a half later.

Here is "Elegy to the Memory of Miss Emily Kay," with my decrypted and annotated rendering in the right-hand column:

Sad nymphs of UL, U have much to cry for, Sad nymphs of Ewell, you have much to cry for,
Sweet MLE K U never more shall C! Sweet Emily Kay you never more shall see!
O SX maids! come hither, and VU, O Essex maids! come hither, and view,
With tearful I this MT LEG. With tearful eye this empty elegy.
Without XS she did XL alway— Without excess she did excel alway—
Ah me! it truly vexes 1 2 C Ah me! it truly vexes one to see
How soon so DR a creature may DK, How soon so dear a creature may decay,
And only leave behind XUVE! And only leave behind exuviae1!
Whate'er 1 0 to do she did discharge, Whate'er one ought to do she did discharge,
So that an NME it might NDR:— So that an enemy it might endear:—
Then Y an SA write ? then why N ? Then why an essay write? then why enlarge2?
Or with my briny tears her BR BDU? Or with my briny tears her bier bedew?
When her Piano-40 she did press, When her Piano-forte she did press,
Such heavenly sounds did MN8, that she, Such heavenly sounds did emanate, that she,
Knowing her Q, soon 1 U 2 confess Knowing her cue, soon won you to confess
Her XLNC in an XTC. Her excellency in an ecstasy.
Her hair was soft as silk, not YRE, Her hair was soft as silk, not wiry,
It gave no Q nor yet 2 P to view: It gave no queue3 nor yet toupee4 to view:
She was not handsome; shall I tell UY? She was not handsome; shall I tell you why?
U R 2 know her I was all SQ. You are to know her eye was all askew.
L 8 she was, and prattling like A J. Elate5 she was, and prattling like a jay.
O, little MLE! did you 4 C O, little Emily! did you foresee
The grave should soon MUU, cold as clay, The grave should soon immure6 you, cold as clay,
And U should cease to B an N. TT! And you should cease to be an entity!
While taking T at Q with LN G, While taking tea at Kew with Ellen Gee,
The MT grate she rose to put a : The empty grate she rose to put a coal on7
Her clothes caught fire—no I again shall C Her clothes caught fire—no eye again shall see
Poor MLE, who now is dead as Solon. Poor Emily, who now is dead as Solon.
O, LN G! in vain you set at 0 O, Ellen Gee! in vain you set at aught
GR and reproach for suffering her 2 B Jeer and reproach for suffering her to be
Thus sacrificed:—to JL U should be brought, Thus sacrificed:—to jail you should be brought,
And burnt U 0 2 B in FEG. And burnt you ought to be in effigy.
Sweet MLE K into SX they bore, Sweet Emily Kay into Essex they bore,
Taking good care her monument to Y10, Taking good care her monument to whiten,
And as her tomb was much 2 low B 4, And as her tomb was much too low before,
They lately brought fresh bricks the walls to I 10. They lately brought fresh bricks the walls to heighten8.

1 Exuviae, according to the Visual Thesaurus, means "cast-off skins or coverings of various organisms during ecdysis." (And ecdysis, as we learned in the National Spelling Bee, is the shedding of skin.) This is obviously a more figurative use of the word.

2 The "N" is larger on the page, and the rhyme with discharge is the clue that this requires the rebus-like reading of "N large" = enlarge.

3 A queue here means "a braid of hair at the back of the head."

4 Toupee, the Oxford English Dictionary informs us, once meant "a curl or artificial lock of hair on the top of the head" that was "worn by both sexes." The OED also says it used to be pronounced like "2-P."

5 Along with its use as a verb, elate was also once an adjective meaning "high-spirited."

6 Immure means "lock up or confine, in or as in a jail." If you have a "non-rhotic" or "r-dropping" accent, then it's possible to read "MU" as immure. A later version from 1830 printed by Horace Smith changed "MU" to "MUR," which works for rhotic speakers too.

7 Another rebus-like bit of wordplay, this time involving punctuation: the colon is read as "coal on."

8 "I 10" for heighten works best in dialects that often drop initial h's (a typical "Cockney" feature). Horace Smith revised this one too, changing it to a rebus-like "high ten" in his 1830 version.

[But wait! Could this verse style have been an American invention after all? On the American Dialect Society mailing list, Joel S. Berson provides an example that uses many of the same types of abbreviation play, published in U.S. newspapers in 1813 — a full fifteen years before Miss LNG and Miss MLE K. The hunt continues...]

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

Part one of our interview with David Crystal about his book, "Txtng: The Gr8 Db8."
The second part of our interview with Crystal.
The third and final part of our interview with Crystal.