cn u rd ths?

I got an email written in what appeared to be some kind of code. I don’t have access to the Rosetta Stone — neither the software, nor the original Ptolemaic granite hardware. So I consulted a texting dictionary to unscrew the inscrutable. Then I replied with the following message:

“If u cn rd ths, u cn bcm a sec & gt a gd jb w hi pa.’

You’re probably too young to remember the 1950s subways, with ­rattan upholstered seats; where straphangers held on to real leather straps hanging from the handrails — a safe distance from the whirling ceiling fans. The leather was later replaced with cold spring-operated handles. Then they also disappeared, leaving just steel handrails. But subway riders are still known as straphangers.

While the subway cars lurched their way through the labyrinth of tunnels, straphangers held on to the straps for dear life. When they weren’t struggling to keep their balance, they read the advertising cards posted over the windows, at eye level. One of the most popular ads was for the School of Speedwriting: a system of shorthand using familiar alphabet letters, instead of the Arabic-looking Gregg shorthand figures.

The ad headlines said: “If u cn rd ths, u cn bcm a sec & gt a gd jb w hi pa.” That translated into: “If you can read this, you can become a secretary and get a good job with high pay.”

Not the most catchy headline I ever saw. But the context and the format made it a classic.

We shorten words to save time or space. These might be abbreviations like USA or NYC, or acronyms — “A word formed using the initials of a full name or phrase and spoken as a whole word” (Garner’s Modern American Usage). For instance, if you say “National Aeronautics and Space Administration,” people will look at you like you’re from Mars. But if you say NASA, all systems are go.

Today we have new, acrimonious acronyms that nobody seems to understand — like POTUS and SCOTUS.

Some acronyms are so familiar that we forget they are abbreviations. Laser, contrary to popular belief, is not short for Eliezer. It’s an acronym for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. Try beaming that one!

Another flashy abbreviation is LED, or light-emitting diode. That’s not an acronym, that’s an initialism — an abbreviation that we pronounce, letter by letter. Hopefully you’re less familiar with other examples, like CIA or FBI.

Like many modern tools, the servant often becomes the master. In this case, it leads to a disorder called initialese, which Bryan Garner called “one of the most irritating types of pedantry that have gained a foothold in legal writing: the overuse of acronyms and abbreviations” (Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage). Garner quoted the late chief justice William Rehnquist about “a case in which seven different groups of initials were used for identification:

“‘The terminology required to describe the present controversy suggests that the “alphabet soup” of the New Deal era was, by comparison, a clear broth.’”

We also use clipped words. Those are long words or phrases that get clipped into a new, shorter word. Automobile became auto; facsimile transmission became fax.

In 1829, politicians who disowned inconvenient friends threw them under the omnibus. Today, they take the bus. William Safire, citing Paul Dickson, author of Slang — the Topical Dictionary of Americanisms, said getting “thrown off the bus” originated with baseball players being called to board the team bus: “Bus leaving. Be on it or under it.” Later, Safire explained, the phrase came to mean making someone a scapegoat.

When Ohr Somayach launched a campus outreach program, I told my brother Harav Nota Schiller, the Rosh Yeshivah (sounds like “my son the doctor”!), he shouldn’t call the program Ohr Somayach, for two reasons:

Nobody will sign up for a program they can’t pronounce.

Even if they can pronounce it, they will feel too threatened to hook up with a yeshivah.

He wasn’t convinced. So I quoted Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, by Trout and Ries, that — in product category after product category — Procter and Gamble were more successful, because they gave independent names to products (Ivory, Crest, Tide) not company names (Colgate or Palmolive).

So I won. And I named the program Jewish Learning Exchange.

My brother liked the “exchange” idea because it suggested dialogue, rather than preaching. Dialectics, not dogma.

Only I didn’t anticipate another issue: the name was too long.

But instead of clipping it to “Exchange,” now everybody in the program calls it JLE.

Positioning also says that unless you’re IBM, the shortest route to anonymity is using initials. Sigh…

Today, we have a new scourge of initialese: textspeak — the language of thumb typists. The language i cnt rd.

You say LOL? I say OY!


Please send smiles, sticks and stones to