Cablese and Wirespeak

I'm always interested in jargons, cants, patois(es?) and codes, and recently learned that my father-in-law, a career newsman, didn't just have a problem with his throat this whole time, but rather has been communicating with me and in Cablese (and movie references).  I knew it wasn't that he had a problem with his throat, but I had no idea what was going on. Allow me to explain:

For about a hundred years after the invention of the telegraph, the main way news was shared was using the telegraph. Converting a story written in regular old English to Morse code was time consuming, expensive, and crucially, charged by the word. And you couldn't just stick words together, like say joining phrasal verbs like WRITEUP for "write up." That's obviously two words smushed together to get around being charged by the word. However, you could get away with making a new word like UPWRITE. Newsmen developed a complex system they used on the cables ("Cablese") as well as their own codes for the news wire ("wirespeak") and each news agency also had their own secret codes (so they couldn't get scooped). Even though they don't use the telegraph anymore, Cablese and Wirespeak live on. 

This last week, my father-in-law gave me the Rosetta Stone: the book Wirespeak: Codes and Jargon of the News Business. It is fantastic.

The book has chapters on Cablese, Wirespeak, and various news agency codes. It's chapter on Cablese is entitled "backwards run the words."

So how does it work? Well, first, anything that can be joined is. But backwards, so it's clearly a different word. So for instance, DOWNHOLD for "hold down." There's a story that when British writer Evelyn Waugh was asked to investigate a rumor a British nurse had been killed in an air raid he received the cable from his editor: SEND TWO HUNDRED WORDS UPBLOWN NURSE. Waugh investigated, found the rumors were untrue, and wrote back NURSE UNUPBLOWN.

That brings me to the second part of how it works: prefixes. everywhere. Most of them are Latin, but some are French, or other.


  1. CUM = with
  2. EX = from
  3. ET = and (e.g., MOM ETDAD)
  4. PAR = by
  5. PRO = for
  6. AD = to
  7. ANTI = against
  8. DANS = in (e.g., DANSRIVER 'in the river')
  9. UN = no, not
  10. POST = after
  11. PRE = before
  12. SUPER = on, over
  13. OMNI = all (e.g., OMNICHEERED 'everyone cheered')
  14. UNI = one
  15. SANS = without
  16. SUR = on

There are also suffixes:

  1. WARD = toward
  2. WISE = manner adverb
  3. EST = most. (Why we don't just say "est" for all superlatives will get its own blog post, to come later)
  4. ING = makes a verb from a noun, or light verb construction (This will also get its own post).
  5. SOME = full of (e.g., GLADSOME TIDINGS)

There is an apocryphal story that an international correspondent quit their job with the cable:


There are also a ton of one offs, like SMORNING for "this morning" and SNIGHT for 'last night.'


(taken from the excellent blog post on the subject Onwriting: Unearthing a lost language, which explains some of the more specific terms as well, like "thumbsucker" for "news analysis" and "art" for "photographer".)

So when my wife etme downwent DCward sweek advisit mother etfather inlaw, it outturns father unupmade weirdtalking. It was preupmade parnewsmen prehim. And now, postwise, I understand his texts meward.



©Taylor Jones 2017

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