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What does the word "telegram" mean?

It sounds familiar though I've no idea what it is.

The dictionary says "telegram" is defined as: "A message sent by telegraph and then delivered in written or printed form."

And I looked up the word "telegraph": "A system for transmitting messages from a distance along a wire, esp. one creating signals by making and breaking an electrical connection"

Would I be right to say "telegram" is a general term for anything over the wire, and also that:

1) the emails that I receive are telegrams

2) the audio that I hear off of a website is a telegram

3) the webpages that I'm viewing are telegrams

4) the videos that I'm watching over the internet are telegrams

5) every time I hit a submit button or type in a url I'm sending a telegram

6) if a MSN notification pops up on my computer, it's because my friend just sent me a telegram

7) my bittorrent is constantly sending and receiving telegrams

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Telegrams were sent over telegraph wires from one office to another, and then delivered to the intended recipient. They were paid for by the letter or word, and led to 'telegraphic English' (contractions, omitted words, etc). See Wikipedia on Telegram. (So no, your examples are not telegrams!) – Jonathan Leffler Jun 27 '11 at 0:07
up vote 1 down vote accepted

This is a very interesting question. I think you could make a reasonable argument that modern fiber optic technology could make your computer into a telegraph, but I don't think that makes any electronic communications into telegrams.

Here's my reasoning: The photoeye in a fiber optics line is switching on and off to create light pulses that are transmitted from one place to another. This is "making and breaking an electrical connection." So this fits the definition of telegraph if you consider "fiber optics" as a wire (however it is really more properly a cable, since it is glass and not metal). That means if you are sending email over a fiber optic line, you could consider your computer a telegraph.

Interestingly, I think this would not apply if you had your internet over standard telephone wires, since the manner of digital signal production is different (it is sampled analog). It is only fiber optic cable that would make it "telegraphic." However, if you omit the "especially" clause of the definition you gave, computer networks certainly fit the description of "A system for transmitting messages from a distance along a wire."

But that said, I don't think a received email could be considered a telegram, since it is neither printed out upon receipt, nor handwritten. It is usually presented on an electronic display. However, if you had email that printed automatically on a fax machine, for instance, that would arguably be a telegram (we had such a thing when I worked in a medical office — it was kind of like an email "pager" system).

So it might be fun to say your friend just sent you a telegram when it's really an email, but I think unfortunately, it would be inaccurate.

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More specifically, none of those are telegrams because a telegraph is not any machine that meets your definition, but a specific machine for sending telegraphs that was used in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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... and 20th, and even 21th. In some countries, telegram services were ceased a few years ago; in many others, such as Germany and Japan, they are still available. – Cerberus Jun 27 '11 at 11:58
If telegrams had maintained widespread use throughout the birth of the Internet then people might have extended the words' meanings to the new technologies. Instead the phone displaced the telegraph and we have internet phone and e-mail. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jun 27 '11 at 13:31
According to wikipedia, Western Union only stopped supporting telegram services in 2006. – T.E.D. Jun 27 '11 at 18:47
Poirier, I'd upvote your answer if you edited it to have the correct centuries. While communication via wire did exist in the 1700's, it was not commercially used until the 1800s. And of course, the 1800's and 1900's are the 19th and 20th centuries. (See the answer and links by @T.E.D.) – thursdaysgeek Jun 27 '11 at 20:06

While telegraphy technically can refer to any method of long-distance signal-based communication, when you see the word telegram it is almost certainly referring to a message sent via electrical telegraph. This is a specific method of wire-based communications that was first used way back in the 1800's and was quite popular up until ubiquitous usage of telephones, and then the Internet, made it obsolete.

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I would say your dictionary's definition is a little misleading. While it may be technically accurate, the artifacts we traditionally refer to as telegrams are typically either handwritten or mechanically printed, which is more specific than just "written" or "printed".

Therefore, none of the things you have mentioned would be commonly referred to as telegrams, because they are not delivered to you in (hand)written or (mechanically) printed form.

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I agree, the short description doesn't allow to understand what a telegraph is. The "making and breaking an electrical connection" part doesn't clearly apply to digital transmissions. What makes the difference is how the message is delivered to the recipient. – kiamlaluno Jun 26 '11 at 23:49
Telegraphy has been going on longer than the telegraph as we know it. – Grant Thomas Jun 27 '11 at 0:22
I wouldn't say OP's dictionary definition is misleading. A bit too brief, perhaps, in that it omits to mention the historical context. But not many people would interpret those two definitions the way OP suggests, I think. And we are talking about a dictionary, not an encyclopedia. – FumbleFingers Jun 27 '11 at 0:53

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