Pinching Pennies and Words

Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr describes "cablese," a language he says evolved in the 1930s from messages transmitted by cablegram. Senders created devices to reduce the number of words in order to save money, Schorr says, leading words such as "play down" to transition to "downplay."

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DANIEL SCHORR: The headlines say the Republicans are trying to downplay their defeat in three recent House elections.


NPR senior news analyst Daniel Schorr.

SCHORR: What catches my attention is the word downplay. When did play down become downplay? Well, I happen to be in a position to tell you about a strange language called cablese. Way back in the 1930s when most of your listeners weren't born yet I worked for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. In those days messengers from abroad were transmitted by cablegram, by Western Union, RCA and commercial cable.

We paid by the word, and even though we paid a reduced press rate, it was still five cents a word, which in those days was real money. And so we found devices to reduce the number of words we use. Using Latin prefixes was one way. We might say refugee arrived London ex-Wausau, signed baggage and leaving pro (unintelligible) We combined words. Pickup became up pick and play down became downplay.

I recall that when our London correspondent over-filed - that is used too many words at these high rates, our editor sent him an angry cable, which read, for Christ's sake, off lay - that's two words.

Few of these ingenious telescope words survived the introduction of the teletype where we paid not by the word but by the minute. But downplay was adopted into the language and hardly anyone ever says play down anymore. I just thought I would remind you of one contribution - uppick - from the cablese language that we spoke for saving money some 70 years ago.

This is Daniel Schorr offsigning.

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