ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

A Short History of Spelling Things R0ng —

This happens more than it should: I am engaged in a roundabout fashion with a person or persons whose work parallels/compliments mine, I acknowledge they’re doing good work, whatever it is, but I don’t just sit down and sift through their work. I have no idea why this happens. Jealousy? Fear of copying good ideas? Laziness? One possibility, as weird as it seems, is that a lot of times I look at other efforts and, while I like the effort, I see so much I would improve, that my endless meddling would result in lost friends and incrementally better projects. Best to just do my own thing over here and not smash around in other pillow forts. It’s obviously something I need to work through if I’m going to be doing this sort of thing all the time.

Therefore, let me make up for lost time and tell you that Know Your Meme is about as perfect as it could possibly be, both the episodic video series and the site itself.  About the only thing I would add is an export function to turn entries into PDFs/ZIPs/etc., and that’s mostly because I’m an asshole about such things. The structure is just how I would envision it, the ability to accept expansion and the curated/moderated/beta-release structure all works in its favor. I’m just damned impressed.

In the inspiration of that, I’m going to write a very intense entry about a very general thing and I hope that Know Your Meme and other students of the passed-along idea will utilize it as needed.

A sidebar about how I tend to write my historical entries. To write truly comprehensive entries would be something that would make me disappear for weeks at a time and result in only slight improvement over a solid first draft. Therefore, I don’t mean to imply I am laying down the final word, just trying to bring the whole conversation lifted upwards a bit. It’s my hope that others, or maybe myself in a future time, will then take this foundation and build upon it even more. This is how I tend to write all of my stuff – and I’ve had a lot of conversations with people doing research or writing stuff where I go “here’s a half-dozen data points you should probably track down”.

So let’s talk about spelling things wrong and how that got to be cool.

Let’s jettison the 20th century and let’s go way back. It’s nice and all to tinkle around the various last few decades and play pin-the-tail-on-the-start-time but if you want some good beginning trends in human behavior, you just have to wander back a ways. Since you’re lazy and want to click around rather than walk a ways and argue with librarians, let’s all visit the Duke University Advertising Collection, which has some awesome wares. Here’s a timeline of Advertising History, and the Emergence of Advertising in America.

Let’s not pretend for a moment that these are the beginning of the central story; mankind has an awesome continuum of “Hey, motherfuckers, come over here and buy my shit” that goes back well past a few thousand years ago. But usually such advertisements were the province of attracting passers-by or utilizing a system of demonstrations, or a range of functions that weren’t just words on a page. (I could see an argument that currency, for example, functions as an advertisement of a local or distant power structure or king/emperor/superior).  What I’m getting at here is the idea of the whole of the engaging force enticing you to pay attention utilizing only words and pictures.

First of all, you have to make your stuff look awesome. And this is awesome:

This roughly-1885-era advertisement for a Positive Cure For All Female Diseases Every Lady Can Treat Herself is one of many thousands of a standard of advertising where all manner of information and opportunity is presented. Just glancing over this simple specimen, you see an offer to do remote by-mail medical consultation (with free sample included), and a warning that you should avoid the minefield of Fraudulant Imitations of this, the Famous Specific Orange Blossom. This ad/leaflet is meant to grab your attention, ladies and provide god-knows-what blend of cocaine, alcohol and whatsis to cure what ails you. Send 2c stamp.

You could blow a summer vacation and two retirements on this collection, believe me. Let me quickly clarify that I don’t just mean the beauty of drawing or even of the fonts, which are pretty great in themselves – I am focusing on the language of this advertising. Observe, please:

This Egyption Regulator Tea will remove indigestion, that Curse of the American People and that from which CONSTIPATION and all other Physical miseries arise, and which will be overcome by the user of this Wonderful but Harmless remedy. It is Worth Its Weight In Gold To Dyspeptic, Debilitated Men to Wornout, Nervious Women, to Mothers of Peevish and Sickly Children, to Girls just budding into Womanhood, to Sufferers from Defective Nutrition, TO ALL CORPULENT PEOPLE.

This is not just simple language and recounting of facts – this is as embroidered a text as you’re likely to find, meant to pull you into its hypnotic realm and leave your head nodding, nodding an affirmative to both its claims and your need to acquire it. It is, like a brightly colored snake, both beautiful, and terrifying. It is also a form of language we don’t utilize much anymore, a notable exception being Jerry “Tycho” Holkins of Penny Arcade, who uses it frequently- I think even a cursory glance of one of his weblog entries shows this to be the case. It’s so out of place a construction as to be a unique style in the gaming pundit industry, and it’s not hard to see, looking at the roots of it, why it might hold interest for people used to more contemporary come-ons.

Among the documents in the Duke library of advertising is a very self-serving book entitled “The J.W.T. Book”, which implies it’s a book on how to do advertising but is, itself, a massive advertisement for the J. Walter Thompson company, which produces advertising. At the time this book was put out, 1908, JWT had been doing advertising for forty years. The advice in the book, by the way, is relatively bunk, because it implies all sorts of high-minded morals and principles in advertising copy and creation, when in fact anything tended to go and avoiding the stupid and malinformed as an audience would have been economic suicide. But I just want attention directed to this chapter:

Here, 101 years ago, is a discussion about the importance of a trademark. They give the example of  Huyler’s Candy and the unique signature logo of the company as being a critical part of the success of the company. (You may be excused if you do not know the Huyler’s candy brand – it was purchased in the 1920s by the Schulte company, which had a chain of stores that expanded out into general stores and then renamed itself into the D. A. Schulte, Inc., Fashion Haberdashery for Men & Women and eventually became the General Stores Corporation and went bankrupt in the 1950s.)

The core idea in this little fake-book is that trademark, specific identity, and branding (they just call it the trademark) is as valuable as the factory that makes the product, and the good will around a product represents the central pillar of the motives of advertising; as the book indicates, a young gentleman of 24 who has known of a product since they were 12 will consider a company as bedrock an enterprise as George Washington and Bunker Hill.

Therefore, it is incumbent upon you to have a unique trademark.

It is also important that your trademark be defensible.

The easiest way to produce a unique, trademarkable name is to use a made-up or misspelled word.

Some of these, like coca-cola, are combinations of what the product is, included in the name. Others, like Uneeda Biscuit, and Heluva Good, are names that evoke a reaction. I will confess to having a strange fascination with corporate naming and activity timelines and trivia, such as knowing that “Motorola” is a combination of “Motor” and “Victrola” and was basically the name for a car radio made by the Galvin Manufacturing Corporation which they later changed their name to.

So, basically, made-up words in this context are a result of legal and protective incentives, allowing companies to control the burgeoning wordspace as later ones would come to control domain names.

Let’s set that aside and go into slang.

Slang which consists of screwed-up/shortened versions of actual phrases and words is endemic for many hundreds of years as well. Again, let’s stay around Industrial Age territory, and pull up some examples of words which have compounded meanings all wrapped into a short form. For example, scapegrace, one who escapes the grace of God, which splits into rascal, scalawag, and scoundrel. Words based on one person’s antics result in terms like Bowdlerize (edit out perceived obscenity or tastelessness for a more general public) and Boycott (agree to not use a service or business or endeavor to force changes in same). Language, in other words, is very permeable, very able to adapt itself and get the “word out” about a new way of looking at things. The field of Etymology is obsessed with these lineages and bursts of usage, utilizing citations from popular cultural locations such as mass media and legal/political documents to produce a history of words. It’s something I dabble in but wouldn’t pretend to be an authority on beyond what I’m doing here, that is, putting up little flags and markers.

In the talk I gave at ROFLcon I spoke about the origins of “OK” as being from “Oll Korrect” and called it a misspelling fad. As this column indicates, the grounds are much more fertile and rich around the creation of this term and the usage of “Oll Korrect”, implying (as one explanation) it coming from insulting spelling of Irish brogue to reference Irish groups involved in the Van Buren election. Regardless, the malleability of language both spoken and printed is demonstrated here.

Newspaper classifieds and Telegrams have similar properties inasmuch as being charged by the word. You buy the space, and then you do what your best within it. (If you want a history of classified ads, you can read this high-school-level report on their history or listen to the author of a book about them).  By charging via the word, you end up with an instant reductive language that is utilized to get rid of the cruft, the stuff we put in to be clearer to each other but which, in a pinch, we don’t need. Hence you might get a phrase like “SWF BBW 29yrs old 38 H breasts. 5feet tall. Lots of curves. Looking for NSA fun. Blonde hair, blue eyes”. We’re now so used to personals references that most of us catch the meaning of what’s being said here, even if the definitions are slightly off. For example, you might read it as “Single White Female, a Big Beautiful Woman, 29 years old, blonde-haired and blue-eyed, with a size 38-H bustline and five feet tall, has a curved outline and is looking for a romantic/sexual encounter with no strings attached.” Or maybe you read it as “Overweight girl wishes to have a series of disastrous one-night stands followed by crying into a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Ice cream. Warning: self-perception issues are at play”. Either works. The point is, you end up with a mass of information encoded into smaller packet-words.

In the telegraph/telegram industry, I learned from the wonderful book The Victorian Internet, there was a big deal of making huge ten-letter words, like PSDREPOWSF, and worse, to encode an enormous amount of information into them, literally on the level of “please purchase 1200 bushels of corn from our Chicago supplier to truck to the Indianapolis depot”. The book cites a legal case where a letter was mis-entered and a wildly excessive amount of an item was purchased, costing a business dearly. The court found that the business was being a cheap asshole and found in favor of the telegraph company. The moral of this story is that as soon as we invent a time machine we have to go back and explain Cyclical Redundancy Checking to them. Hey, what do you mean, “patent spark plugs”?

So overloading words with double meanings and triple meanings via spelling changes, compound contraction and the like is well in effect before we get up to… well, let’s skip over to military slang.  How about that.

Military slang is a much more efficient set of terms for frequently encountered situations. With the same brutality encapsulated in the making of war, comes the repurposing and changing of language to suit situations. Off the top of my head, I think of FUBAR (fucked up beyond all recognition), Top Brass (or The Brass, from brass emblems worn by officers) and Third Man (to go too far, referring to the third person to light a cigarette in a trench and get killed by a sniper, the first and smokers allowing the sniper to notice and aim, respectively).  And again, there’s an excellent book out there. If you’re in the cheap seats, this awesome weblog entry will do nicely.

The first casualty of war, in other words, is language, utilized as needed as a protection against the horrors of the reality of the situation, as a short-hand form to save time, and as a way to get complicated concepts that frequently pop up into the minds of your audience/comrades so the team can move quickly to the next confronting issue. It is, essentially, the same shorthand that any industry, be it printmaking, fishing, or brewing, finds itself conjuring up over many years and in many situations. The difference, I think, is the self-degradation and insulting nature of military slang, meant to give a bit of rebellion and farce to the proceedings of a situation where the command chain is all.

I would contend, and stick with me here, that the situation is not unlike a lot of intensive online life right now. Come on, stick with me, we got this far. In contemporary electronic discourse, time is of the essence because of the flood of new concepts, the back and forth between strangers, and the propensity for weird and yet commonplace occurrences to pull away your time and imagination. You have to use terms in various ways because otherwise you’d drown telling people that you thought someone was being dishonest in their propositions for the purposes of gaining attention and wasting time, when it’s so much easier to say they’re trolling for victims, or just trolling.

It’d be nice if we could see how people first reacted to being online, without doing so because of military/academic/corporate requirements but simply to engage with other people. Oh wait, we can.

We’re lucky, because Ward Christensen kept the printouts from the first months of the first BBS, and I have transcribed a lot of them. Here’s some choice odd spellings from that time:

 I AM A MEMBER OF THE NORTHWEST COMPUTER CLUB. JUST
      FOUND OUT ABOUT YOUR NEAT SYSTEM FROM HOMEBREW N/L
      AND WROTE AN ARTICLE ON IT FOR OUR N/L. WE HAVE
      A SIMILAR CAPABILITY ON A LOCAL TIMESHARE SYSTEM,
      BUT NOT PUBLIC. I AM AMAZED THAT YOU CAN GET SO MUCH
      THRUPUT ON ONE PHONE LINE! LOTS OF SUCCESS.

“Thruput” and “N/L” for “Newsletter” are interesting here.

[ Randy Suess Breaks into Chat ]

       - RANDY????

       - YES

       - I HAD CALL FROM FRIEND OF YOURS ABOUT HP2000

       - YES HE IS K00L

I have no idea why this guy used “K00l” instead of “Cool” here. He just did. There were no predecessors for the change; it just happened. That’s in 1978.

Now, let’s go to a printout I have from 1984. At this point, teenagers, who have been active since the 1979-1980 era and are growing in significant numbers, are all over the bulletin boards, in many cases pushing out the older users who had come before them.

>>> BY: APPLE ASSASSIN

PERSONALLY,I DONT LIKE BOOT TRACING... ONE OF THE
VERY BEST AND EASYEST WAYS TO CRACK A DISK WITH QUASI NORMAL DOS IS TO USE
MINI DEMUFFIN... IF ANY OF U WANT THIS PROG EMAIL ME...
  *NOTE*
        FOR SOME STRANGE REASON (THE RWTS IS SCRWEY) IT WOUNT CRACK 3.3P SHIT.

                                                LATER -1.1
                                                        A.A

To this end, you can see that Apple Assassin can barely functionally spell. I count five words spelled wrong, including the use of “U” for “you”. “Prog” is short for program; we use “App” now, short for “Application”. I am sure that “1.1″ means something at the end means something, but I’d have to spend way too much time finding another citation. And just to be fair to the people who wrote these long-ago messages, text-editors were nowhere near as sophisticated as they are now, and so it was rather painful and annoying to go back and edit your words. As a result, we’re talking write-once-and-save for the messages, meaning spelling errors just have to take it like a bitch.

Somewhere in here, along the whorls and eddies of bulletin board systems, poor spelling and grammar becomes a hallmark of a cluttered mind which, all things considered, probably isn’t going to have good and new pirated software available. This is reflected in textfiles I have from the period, including the seminal Real Pirate’s Guide by Rabid Rasta. I consider this file to be almost required reading about BBS history, because it shows such a perfect self-aware 1984 BBS user, ridiculing and pointing out what even at that early time were characterizations and issues with some of the more base personalities of the software piracy scene. I was taken enough with this file that I actually created an annotated version of it for people to read, with my own thoughts on the context of the file. (I also notice I go over the whole “OK” thing in this file as well; I loved that story!)

Note, then, the writing of the “parody” pirate in this file:

FROM-> JHONNY THE AVENGER
DATE-> SAT AUG 4   10:21 PM
I SAW YOUR MESSAGE ON THE PIRATE BOARD ABOUT YOU HAVEING SIDE 2 OF SUMMER GAM
ES!MY CONNECTIONS MR.ZEROX AND CHEIF S URGEN BLACK BAG ARE’NT AROUND TO MAIL IT
2 ME SO WANNA DO SOME SERIUS TRADEI NG?I HAVE GRAFORTH ,CHOPLIFTER ,MARS CARS
,DISK MUNCHER AND SOME K00L OTHER
STUFF AND GAMES.CALL ME AT 312-323- 3741.IF YOU NEED PHREAK CODES I HAVE THEM
TO AND BOX PLANS.BYE
*** *****     **
* * *  *
*  * * ******
** HONNY    * HE  * * VENGER
*THE KNIGHTS OF MYSTERIOUS KEYBOARDS*!
THE AWESOMEST HACK GROUP IN TOWN

I SAW YOUR MESSAGE ON THE PIRATE BOARD ABOUT YOU HAVEING SIDE 2 OF SUMMER GAM ES!MY CONNECTIONS MR.ZEROX AND CHEIF S URGEN BLACK BAG ARE’NT AROUND TO MAIL IT 2 ME SO WANNA DO SOME SERIUS TRADEI NG?I HAVE GRAFORTH ,CHOPLIFTER ,MARS CARS ,DISK MUNCHER AND SOME K00L OTHER

And then compare and contrast with the writing of the author of the file, ostensibly using the top of his spelling and grammar skills to express himself:

IS THE AUTHOR OF THE ABOVE MESSAGE A TRUE PIRATE?  SINCE THE BEGINNING OF TIME
THERE HAS BEEN AN IMPLICIT CODE OF ETIQUETTE GOVERNING THE ACTIONS OF SOFTWARE
PIRATES, BUT AS MANY OF YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED AS OF LATE, THAT CODE HAS BEEN
KNOCKED AROUND A BIT.  ALTHOUGH IT'S NOT DIFFICULT TO DIFFERENTIATE A TRUE
PIRATE FROM ONE OF THESE POOR IMITATIONS, I BELIEVE THAT, WITH THE NUMBER OF
TRUE PIRATES DECREASING AT SUCH AN ALARMING RATE, THIS CODE SHOULD BE SET
STRAIGHT.

What passes for entertainment in my life is the fact that I’ve had to sit through hundreds, perhaps thousands of forum messages in countless years throughout the 1990s and 2000s, 20 years of this, where people are decrying how their “scene” has been ruined and what represents an elite or competent group, and here’s a file in 1984, fully 25 years ago, decrying what is perceived as a possible sunset on the days of “real” piracy.

That aside, the writing seems competent, the thoughts clear, and the setup is succinct and straightforward. From this, I think, comes a demonstration that spelling things badly, changing out letters, and shortening phrases into curt letter sets was something to be made fun of if it hit extremes. Even back then. The BBS world is self-aware of this potential issue and it becomes both a warning flag of breakdown of good communication and a way that people continue to use to communicate.  For some, the terms “K-Rad”, “K00l”, “Warez” and “Zero-Day” (zero day meant something else back then) were both efficient slang and unironic demarcations of your acceptance/stature into the “scene”. That tension has never left electronic communication since. We both use short-form terms and make fun of them. We intentionally spell things wrong and then ridicule others who do same. It fluctuates based on mood, fad, and usage. And, were it not for the utility underlying it, it would have died of shame a very long time ago, longer than a lot of the current crowd using 4chan, say, has been alive.

I believe, therefore, that two entirely at-odds facts exist in our odd uses of slang, spelling errors and short-form terms online: that they have a long and storied history, and that for many of the utilizers of these terms, that history has no relevance whatsoever. They came, they saw “sauce” instead of “please tell me the source of this interesting media you just provided”, and they were fine with using the term. It worked. It was fine and it was good.

And thus it shall always be.


Categorised as: computer history

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11 Comments

  1. Church says:

    Was there intentional misspelling designed to throw off legal enforcement (warez, etc.) or is that a romantic myth? I have heard this was the impetus behind 1337 speak, but it always seemed to me to be about posturing, primarily.

  2. Jason Scott says:

    OK, on first glance, I’d say there’s no way. Second and third, too. That said, I can’t vouch for what runs through the minds of people who were actually writing that way. But I just don’t see it being the case. Good rumor, though.

  3. Drew Shope says:

    This is great stuff, lot’s of knowledge. Very interesting read.

  4. An amazing post. I feel motivated to work my way through the “Real Pirates Guide” now. Thanks!

  5. Wyatt says:

    Excellent write-up; you’ve hit upon one of the most intriguing aspects of language change in modern linguistics. The important thing to be aware of is the rate of change is frankly frightening at this point, and it only serves to make the work you do more important. Personally, I was actually secretly rather pleased that I postulated the eventuality of 4chan’s dialect (circa late 2004, or so) escaping to the internet at large so long before it happened.

  6. Shannon Harris says:

    Looking forward to more of these in depth mini-analyses when you get to do them fulltime….

    • Jason Scott says:

      Hey, this IS me going fulltime – we’ve almost hit the funding goal (it’s looking good) and all I’m doing now is stuff both online and off, rearranging things so I can devour through history, to-do, and you name it.

  7. JudgeDeadd says:

    Wow, the annotated guide was a fascinating read. Thanks!

  8. [...] A Short History of Spelling Things R0ng on the Internet (Jason Scott) [...]

  9. Rubes says:

    If this is the kind of thing we’d expect to see more of if you were at this full-time, I’d have to go and double my pledge. Seriously.

  10. [...] A short history of spelling things wrong on the Internet. [...]