What's in a Number?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Letters
From AJR,   December/January 2008

What's in a Number?   


What? Are you folks at AJR all so young and politically correct that you not only had to assign someone to research the etymology of " 30 " but also had to soft-pedal the data? (Drop Cap, October/November.) "So Why Not 29?" October/November.

Aside from the fact that virtually all of us over 70 ascribe to the obvious (that " 30 " is short for its "XXX" predecessor), you reported that reporters used to shout "Copy!" to summon a courier. Copy? Wherever I worked it was always "Boy!" even if the courier wasn't one. Hadass Kogan as much as said so in her piece when she quoted Don Harrison's reference to a "copyboy." He obviously knew a boy when he saw one and wasn't afraid to say so.

The first time I ever heard the word "copy" used in that context was when I moved across town from Cincinnati's Post in 1970 to the morning Enquirer. "Effete bunch, you ayem people," I muttered to dayside city editor Bob Firestone. "Get used to it," he grumbled back.

Graydon DeCamp
Elk Rapids, Michigan

Regarding the article on the use of " 30 " at the end of copy, in the October/November issue: When I was a copyboy at the Evening Bulletin in Philadelphia, starting in 1948, and tore incoming copy off many a Teletype machine, articles ended with " 30 " and messages often ended with " 73 ". Really personal messages, like Christmas greetings, sometimes ended "Best 73s and 30."

In those days of yore, Western Union telegraphers would arrive in the sports department on summer afternoons and connect their apparatus to receive incoming play-by-play from far-flung baseball parks. One of them explained to me that the numbers were remnants of 19th century telegraphers' code; 30 meant end of message, and 73 meant regards.

The website of the Signal Corps Association, http://scard.buffnet.net/index.html, contains the 1859 Western Union Code and "Wood's Telegraphic Numerals" from 1864.

Both use 30 and 73, and lots of other code numbers. So 73 and 88. (88 means "love and kisses.")

James Smart
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

"So Why Not 29?" like so many other " 30 " fables missed one of the most plausible explanations. The end-of-story symbol was an instruction to printers to set a 30-em dash. The typed double hyphen still means dash, and it even works automatically in some software. The " 30 " told the typesetting machine operator to make it very long.

That chunk of metal type was like a "rule," a solid line that could be as long as 30 "M" letters, so it filled or nearly filled the full width of a column. It was the visual cue that a story had ended. It was necessary in hot-metal print shops where dull gray, backward-reading body type came tumbling out of linecasting machines, story after story.

One more thing: Some say that " 30 " was replaced by "###" on the wires to reduce the chance that rip-and-read radio news announcers would say "Thirty" on the air.

John McClelland
Associate professor emeritus
Roosevelt University
Chicago, Illinois

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