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The Twitter/telegraph constraint

August 3, 2009

Today’s New York Times has an interesting opinion piece on a type of constraint-based writing practiced “during the late 19th-century telegraphy boom.”

[S]ome carriers charged extra for words longer than 15 characters and for messages longer than 10 words. Thus, the cheapest telegram was often limited to 150 characters.

So Twitter had a precursor. Ben Schott, the article’s author, draws from the third edition of “The Anglo-American Telegraphic Code” to list phrases that were encoded into words so as to subvert the restrictions: “aerial” was the code for “act upon your attorney’s advice,” for example. (It’s an insight into the kinds of communications during that time that phrases such as “Advance as far as you can without exciting suspicion,” “A large amount has been embezzled (by),” and “How much is your life insured for?” required common one-word codes.)

I’ll be teaching constraint-based practices during the fall term to senior writing majors; might be fun to come up with a list of codes students might find useful when Twittering…

Speaking of constraint-based practice, Jacket 37 has a lovely piece by Louis Bury titled “The Exercise and the Oulipo: 99 Variations on a Thesis” that’s a lot of fun.

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