Conversation Topics: You've Got Mail
Fortunately for our children, they grow up learning the language of E-mail. You and I are less fortunate. But we can take comfort by better understanding the history of E-mail.

Not many of us can remember the days of the telegram. Characterized as brief and expensive, telegrams were used only for the most urgent of messages in the last half of the 1800's. Each character of the message had to be laboriously transcribed into (and transmitted as) the series of dots and dashes (really 'shorts' and 'longs') of Morse code and then relayed from one station to the next until it reached the proper destination. In addition to the labor, the cost of stringing up (and keeping strung up) telegraph wires between the major cities of the world was expensive.

By the early 1900's, however, telegrams had become more common place as a means of sending written messages of all kinds -- birth announcements, congratulatory notes, news, and more -- partly because their cost had come down and partly because their still significant cost added an air of importance to the message (or the sender). However, since the sender was charged by the word (10 word minimum), there developed a style to keeping a message short but clear. The best telegrams were the haiku poetry of their day. (For an interesting pamphlet on the subject of writing telegrams that was published in 1928, I call your attention to http://www.metronet.com/~nmcewen/telegram.html.)

One peculiarity of telegram writing was the use of the word "STOP" in place of a period. This practice began because telegrams usually contained no punctuation. If they were to have punctuation, the sender was charged the same rate for a punctuation mark as for a word, and furthermore, the punctuation might have been lost because of the low quality of the typing devices that printed the message. Hence, typically, punctuation, if needed, was spelled out, and in the case of a period, the shorter word "STOP" was adopted.

The evolution from telegram to today's E-mail was simply a matter of technology. As telephone operators were replaced with automatic switching equipment, the next major step was the introduction in the 1950's of Telex. Telexes, which you can think of as a telegram style faxes, enabled businesses to send telegram-like messages over the telephone network to other businesses. As the pervasiveness of computer terminals and offices computer networks grew in the 1980's, Telex's gave way to E-mail. The popularity of E-mail for personal use had to wait until the 1990's before there was a sufficient abundance of personal computers interconnected through private networks run by on-line service providers. The widespread availability of the Internet enabled people to send mail between users on different networks and was the most recent step.

Unlike the telegram, with its punctuation turned to text, today's E-mail enables a whole host of options -- color, bolding, italics, font styles, frowning faces, and more -- that enable the form of the message to convey meaning as well. These days, a message in all lower case letters suggests that it's a casual message; proper capitalization suggests formality; and notes typed with the 'shift' key accidentally pressed usually elicits inquiries as to why you were shouting.

So, feeling bedeviled that your grade-schooler is better at E-mail than you? Don't be. It's the method of communication they grew up with. As for us, well, take solace in the near certainty that twenty years from now, E-mail will look nothing like today's E-mail, and your children will, like you today, be feeling befuddled about how best to communicate using the latest incarnation of the old fashion telegram.

Updated September 30, 2003 - go to our home or life advice page