Music · Reading · Word of the week

Word of the week: telegram

You remember telegrams, right? Or maybe not; maybe you’re too young.

Recently I was explaining to my children, who are both teenagers, how telegrams used to work. They were the quickest way of sending a message composed of text to anyone in the world. They were also expensive, so people restricted the number of words included in each message. This explanation was prompted by a story that came to mind of a journalist writing a piece about Hollywood star Cary Grant. He wanted to know the actor’s age and sent a telegram saying: “How old Cary Grant?” The reply, apparently, said: “Old Cary Grant fine STOP How you?”

These days, as you know, we can contact people instantly without having to pay by the word, through text messages, email and assorted other messaging services. The traditional way of sending a telegram was to visit a post office, probably queue for a while until a clerk became available, then dictate the text of the message, give details of the recipient, and pay, by the word. The word “STOP” indicated a full stop in the body of the message, as in the Cary Grant story quoted above.

While discussing the lost world of telegrams I recalled the story of Victor Hugo’s single-character exchange with his publisher. The author sent a simple “?” to enquire about the success of his latest book (“Les Misérables”, if I have remembered it correctly). His publisher sent back an equally brief “!” to indicate that it was flying off the shelves.

I also recounted my favourite joke. It relies on an understanding of telegrams, so it’s either for people of a certain age, or it will need some explanation. It goes like this:

A dog goes into a post office and says to the clerk, “I’d like to send a telegram please”.
The clerk gets his pen and paper ready, says, “Go ahead”, and the dog says, “Woof Woof Woof Woof Woof STOP Woof Woof Woof Woof STOP”
The clerk counts up the words and says, “That’s nine Woofs there, sir. It’s the same cost for ten words as for nine. Shall I put in an extra Woof there for you?”
The dog looks at him disdainfully and says, “Well, don’t be ridiculous, man. It wouldn’t make any sense then, would it?”

This joke, with slightly different punctuation, previously appeared in this post. When I told it to my father around 15 years ago he told me a similar one, about a woman who had received a marriage proposal by telegram:

The delivery boy asks if she wants to send a reply.
She does, as follows: “Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes STOP Yes Yes Yes Yes STOP”
As in the previous joke, the boy counts up the words and tells her that she can include an extra word at no extra cost.
“Shall I put in an extra Yes there for you?”
“Oh no,” she replies, “I don’t want to appear too keen.”

Coincidentally, when my father and I were exchanging jokes, I was wearing a t-shirt that I had bought at the James Joyce Museum in Dublin. It features the word “Yes” three times, as part of the last eight words of “Ulysses” (“and yes I said yes I will yes”) as you can see here:

Ulysses T Shirt

Last month I wrote this piece about re-reading “Ulysses”, and included a photo of numerous other items that I bought at the museum. The image above completes the set.

It might have been “Ulysses” that got me thinking about telegrams. The word appears 10 times in the book. Or it might have been “The Mating Season” by PG Wodehouse which I read last month. It contains 14 references to “telegram”, the most in any single novel on my Kindle e-reader. As I have mentioned before on these pages, more than once, my Kindle contains a subset of the books that I have bought and read. If it contained everything, I would be able to find quotes and references far more quickly than I can in printed books. I have just run a search to see how many books contain the word “telegram”. It appears nearly 100 times in “The Complete Sherlock Holmes”. It also appears in “The Brothers Karamazov”, “The Great Gatsby”, “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”, “Jude the Obscure” and “Daniel Deronda”, to name just a few. Assuming we are still printing books a hundred years from now, new editions of every title named in this paragraph might contain footnotes or endnotes to explain what telegrams were. In the meantime, if you want to know anything about them just ask someone who was born before, say, 1972. That’s the year that “Telegram Sam” by T Rex reached #1 here in the UK. It’s the only song in chart history that has “telegram” in the title. Here’s a clip from German TV for you to enjoy STOP



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