language and words in the news

In the news – speaking in code

© Sean Gladwell / Fotolia.comOnce upon a time, writing in code was the stuff of detective novels and spy movies. Messages would be encoded using transposition ciphers (rearranging the letters of a word), substitution ciphers (where letters are replaced with other letters or numbers), or even steganography (where a piece of text says one thing, but means something completely different).

Code-breaking wasn’t just the realm of the fictional hero, however – it also played a crucial role in world history. Code-breakers at the top secret Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire helped to bring World War II to a close by providing advanced information that allowed Allied leaders to anticipate and counter enemy moves. Their work has never been forgotten, and last week, the site received funding to become a world heritage and educational centre.

Some 60 years on, the writing and translating of code is no longer confined to a specialized few – almost all of us do it on a daily basis, without even realizing it. Think about text messages; they use a kind of substitution cipher / phonetics combination, in which a word is made as short as possible by using the fewest number of letters or numbers necessary to create the sounds. So see you later becomes c u l8a (or c u l8r), are you OK becomes RUOK and anyone becomes NE1.

Ordinarily, the purpose of a code is to keep the message secret; obviously, we want our text messages to be read, so the key to this particular code is brevity. Ideas and phrases are abbreviated beyond all recognition, turning all my love into aml, laughing out loud to lol and, should our hysteria continue, rolling on the floor laughing to rofl.

Whilst the initial reason for keeping words short was the limited number of characters in a text message, many people still use the same ‘code’ even when the text they’re composing is just a couple of lines long. Somehow, it just seems odd to change from 4 to for, or Gr8 to great; maybe it has to do with the size of the screen – anything more than a few characters strung together looks overwhelming perhaps?

Increasingly, of course, this ‘code’ is making its way into wider communications; it’s appearing more and more in emails, anyone who’s ever been in an internet chat room or forum will know that it’s the norm there, and it’s even become acceptable in brand names and marketing – think of Phones4u, or b2b (business-to-business) services.

The work of the teams at Bletchley Park was, of course, infinitely more complicated – and important! – than deciphering a text message, but I wonder if it ever occurred to them that 60 years on, we’d all be speaking in code.

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Sharon Creese


  • Very interesting topic. I think that code-speaking creates some kind of a sub-culture. Anyone who knows how to read and write this code feels that he/she belongs to this special community.

  • This is really interesting. I especially find the ‘action codes’ interesting (like ROFL, LMAO for example). It’s a way of quickly giving context in a communication that is immediate but also confined to text. For example: ROFL adds to the conversation by providing a background image/tone without muscling in on the text proper – as soon as you spell it out, it has a different effect. Tone is a real blind area in texting and instant messaging and it’s really easily to misinterpret – so these ’emoticodes’ play a role in making sure we are understood.

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