Dash It All

In “Freaks of the Telegraph,” an 1881 article in Blackwood’s Magazine, Charles Lewes points out that in Morse code the words BAD (-… .- -..) and DEAD (-.. . .- -..) differ only by the space between the D and E in DEAD.

This could result in a sentence such as MOTHER WAS BAD BUT NOW RECOVERED being interpreted strangely as MOTHER WAS DEAD BUT NOW RECOVERED. “Of course, in this case a telegraph operator (short of believing in zombies) would likely notice something was amiss and ask for confirmation of the message — or else attempt to correct it himself,” writes N. Katherine Hayles in How We Think.

But correcting it himself could lead to further misunderstandings. Lewes gives one example: “A lady, some short time since, telegraphed, ‘Send them both thanks,’ by which she meant, ‘Thank you; send them both’ — (the ‘both’ referred to two servants). The telegram reached its destination as ‘Send them both back,’ thus making sense as the official mind would understand it, but a complete perversion of the meaning of the writer.”