Fist Of History

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Phillips Code – Telegraphy and Shorthand Expressions

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

It struck me yesterday that today’s trend towards acronyms and shorthand expressions when using instant messaging software, of any sort, might have had a parallel in the 19th century and the telegraph.  (Considering in most cases you were billed by the word/message length by Western Union.)  A little research revealed that a shorthand code did exist in the 19th and early 20th century – but it was not in widespread use by the general public and was hideously complicated.

It was known as Phillips Code – created by a telegraph operator named Walter P. Phillips in 1879 and then reprinted multiple times from the 1880s through the 1930s.  Each addition made slight modifications to the code but left the core concept intact, using a series of letters to refer to specific words so that stories could be transmitted more rapidly.  In some cases the letter combinations made sense but in most cases the book had to be used as a reference for both encoding and decoding the messages.  It was commonly used by newspaper reporters and some professionals when sending long messages/submitting stories by telegraph.

Apparently the terms POTUS (President of the United States) and SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) have survived and are attributed to the Phillips Code as their point of origin.  I checked and “Lol” is in the code list but at the time meant “Loss of Life” rather then its more cheerful meaning now.  (In case you are curious Cgs was the code for Congress – I suppose it was felt that national identity on that was not needed.)

The idea may be old but just looking at the code system in place I have to say – the modern shorthand seems A LOT more organic in approach and A LOT more successful.

Sources: Wikipedia Article on Phillips Code and a listing of the acronyms used in the Phillips Code.