[This post first appeared on Hoosier State Chronicles: Indiana’s Digital Newspaper Program]
Well, gentle readers, if u r like me, u r probably annoyed @ the terrible vocab skills of the txt generation.
But W8 just a second. Txtspk isn’t new. It got 2 to the Hoosier St8 B4 U.
In one of the last issues of Indiana’s oldest newspaper, the Vincennes Western Sun, editor John Rice Jones excerpted a clever love poem addressed “To Miss Catherine Jay of Utica.”
Written by an unknown author around 1832 and previously printed in literary magazines back East, “KTJ of UTK” (for short) is probably the earliest example in a Hoosier newspaper of what we now call “text speak.”
Most of the poetry and fiction printed in antebellum Indiana papers was copied out of Eastern journals carried west by riverboat or stagecoach. Samuel Morse invented his own “abbreviated” form of communication around 1844, but the telegraph didn’t come into common use until the 1850s. Early trains often traveled at a speed that we would find maddeningly slow today — sometimes running at less than 20 mph, hardly faster than a horse at a gallop or a steamboat going downriver. (In fact, due to safety concerns over wandering children and livestock, trains were nearly even banned in Indiana before the Civil War.)
John Jones probably saw “Katie Jay of Uticay” in a copy of Dwight’s American Magazine, published in New York in February 1847. An even earlier “cousin” of this amazing poem was printed in the Utica Organ in upstate New York, the Columbia (Penn.) Spy, and Atkinson’s Casket, a popular Philadelphia literary journal, as far back as 1832.
The original “KTJ,” in turn, might have been inspired by two incredible British “text-speak” dirges published in The New Monthly Magazine in London in 1828. Katie Jay’s trans-Atlantic cousins were no less than the unfortunate “Miss LNG of Q” (Ellen Gee of Kew, blinded by a “B” sting in the “I”) and “MLE K of UL” (Emily Kay of Ewell, burned to death while putting “:” [coal on] a kitchen fire grate.) Sad nymphs and “SX” (Essex) maids, these. Hark, friends, gather round and listen 2 their f8, and please 4C: 1 day U 2 shall cease 2B an N.TT!
A 2010 article in the New Yorker mistakenly identifies the anonymous poet who wrote “Katie Jay” as Charles Carroll Bombaugh. In fact, Bombaugh, a medical examiner who died in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1906, only anthologized this clever piece, which came out in his 1867 book Gleanings for the Curious from the Harvest-Fields of Literature. (The popular anthology of literary witticism was republished in 1890.)
On September 22, 1849, “KTJ” appeared on the front page of the Vincennes Western Sun. Like this poem, most of what was printed in the Vincennes paper over the years wasn’t local news or literature, and rarely featured much writing by Hoosier wags. In fact, most of the paper in the late 1840s was taken up with news from Europe, the East Coast, Texas and Mexico.
KTJ shows up next to the latest news from the packet “Europa,” just docked at Halifax, Nova Scotia: Louis Kossuth’s Hungarian Revolution is still being fought. Kossuth’s revolution against the Austrians eventually failed. A few years later, in the winter of 1852 (“cold as cold can B?”), the defeated Hungarian patriot sailed over “the Atlantic C” and toured Indiana, coming on the steamboat Wisconsin from Cincinnati. Kossuth was hailed as a hero of democracy in the Indiana State Sentinel and the Terre-Haute Journal, among other papers. A small town in Washington County in southern Indiana was named after him. Alas, “Kossuth, Indiana” has now almost vanished. We mourn its DK.
With news sometimes traveling west at a great time-lag, people were always eager for entertainment in the meantime. Sometimes printers like Elihu Stout and John Jones had no news to print, so they regaled readers with whatever they could find. And unlike the news, poetry — even when written in “text speak” — can occasionally be timeless.
Hoosier State Chronicles is currently collating issues of the Western Sun from 1837 to 1849 for possible inclusion online later this year. Here’s some other entertaining excerpts from the Vincennes paper in those days. (And if you’re in Vincennes, you can visit a reconstructed version of Elihu Stout’s print shop, originally built in 1808, at Vincennes State Historic Site, the location of the old territorial capitol.)