2b |! 2b, < = ?

With such a rich history of inventive writing and puns, it seemed bizarre to me that the idea of writing in txtspk would be a new one. I found a brief degree of truncation in telegram style, dating back 120 years, but I can't find any further history of people using the phonetic sounds of punctuation or numbers for humour, wit or any other reason.

Are cute pieces of wit such as '22' (tutu), ': imflam8ion' and so on unique to recent writers, or do they have a longer running history?

Edit: I can't believe I forgot l33tsp34k as @Kathryn points out in an answer below, but the original intent of my question was to find examples of these shortenings much older than the past few decades, if they exist.

  • How do you define texting? Texting from mobile phones has only been available since 1992. Shortening words like your example has been around for much longer. Dec 14, 2012 at 19:13
  • By 'texting' I meant messages sent from mobile phones or beepers. I was after some concrete details on 'has been around for much longer'.
    – Ina
    Dec 14, 2012 at 19:32
  • Shorthand of various forms has been available for a long time. See Speedwriting for example. txtng is sort of a crowd-sourced spdwrtng. Dec 14, 2012 at 19:36
  • Here's a song title copyright for BCNU in 1937: books.google.com/…
    – Jim
    Dec 14, 2012 at 23:45
  • Phillips Code. From 1879. U for "you", R for "are", C for "see", etc. It is also where POTUS and SCOTUS originate from. Thinking that textspeak only started with texting is a classical case of recency illusion. Not everyone writing a quick note, a cheat sheet, or a grocery list back in, say, 1500 was spelling out every single word. It's just that most of those quick notes have vanished. Archive.org doesn't go back to 1500.
    – RegDwigнt
    Dec 14, 2012 at 23:50

5 Answers 5


OMG was used in a letter from Lord Fisher to Churchill in 1917. Smileys have been around for a while possibly as far back as 1862 if you believe some people. The use of the letter X to signify a kiss dates back to at least 1765.

So yes, there were lazy/economical letter writers long before SMS-speak.

  • 2
    I would say inventive rather than lazy/economical. Dec 14, 2012 at 20:39

Playing with language may be as old as language itself. When I was at school in the middle of the last century we saw things like YYURYYUBURYY4ME. Before that, the Victorians had fun with a thing called a rebus.

  • I always heard that as YYUR YYUB ICUR YY4ME.
    – Hellion
    Dec 14, 2012 at 19:37
  • @Hellion. Yes, you're right. Faulty memory. Dec 14, 2012 at 19:39
  • 1
    There was also B e D with a zero over it, but that would be taboo now. Dec 14, 2012 at 19:40
  • @BarrieEngland (Took me a while to decode!) Why taboo? Nov 25, 2019 at 18:20
  • I thought it might be deemed racist. Nov 26, 2019 at 19:48

This kind of "speech" has been used on customized automobile ("vanity") license plates for as long as I can remember, like this:

enter image description here

(I'm not sure when the practice started, but I can attest that it's been going on for at least 40 years.)

In the 1970s, my aunt and uncle spotted a vehicle with the plate 10S·NE1. It took them about five miles or so to figure it out.

In any case, necessity is the mother of invention. In the same way it became a challenge to pack as much meaning as you could into the seven or eight allowed characters allowed on a license plate, so texters and tweeters sometimes aim to save space or time with similar typographical tricks. In other words, I suspect it's done partly for amusement, and partly for practical reasons.

  • When I was about 14, I planned to have a VW bus with the vanity plate FRK MBL. Dec 14, 2012 at 21:27
  • @cornbreadninja: That says a lot about you – you realize that, right? 8^)
    – J.R.
    Dec 15, 2012 at 1:29

Alfred Bester's novel The Demolished Man (1952) has characters called Wyg&, @kins and ¼Maine.


Yes, the current text speak is based on l33t (or 1337) speak. l33t speak began in the 1980s, when elite users received special privileges. Then in the 1990s, gamers used leet speak to chat with each other using text. Typos helped create new spellings such as "teh" for "the". But wanting to type faster and not lose game time led to abbreviations and l33t speak. The word "l33t" stands for "leet", which in turns is a phonetic representation of "elite". Only elite players knew the language and the substitutions, such as a 3 for the letter E, hence l33t speak.

For more details, see the Wikipedia article on Leet.

  • 1
    Thanks @Kathryn, but this would put the earliest date of such shortening at the 1980s. Is there any earlier history than that?
    – Ina
    Dec 14, 2012 at 19:33

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