Hillary Clinton, and the surprising history of elder statesmen writing like tweens

What year do you think this was written? "I wish you wd tell me how u.r. when u. write."

Texting with Hillary.
(Image credit: Illustration by Lauren Hansen | Images courtesy iStock, Hillmoji keyboard)

Since Hillary Clinton's private emails as secretary of state have been released, people have been abuzz about their contents. The State Department not knowing about her private email! Her inability to get a fax machine working! And gefilte fish — where are we on that?

But there's also the way certain things are spelled — or not. There are the brisk abbreviations by Clinton herself: "Pls tell Joe I left the book w Chris in the sit room"; "Thx. Also, I tried Doug twice but it went right to voice mail"; "I'm leaving here on Wed and I'll be at home over the weekend so I'd rather get it over w in the morning." But then there's her aide Huma Abedin, addressing the secretary of state not as Madam Secretary, not as Mrs. Clinton or Ms. Clinton, not even as you, but — over and over again — as u: "Can u do in the next 30 min?" "R u up?" "pls call jake when u can thru ops"; "Ur email must be back up!!"… and so on, email after email after email.

Many of us have the idea that the high-level communications involving one of the most important people in the most powerful government in the world will be… well, high-level. What we see here are well-educated, powerful people sending emails that read more like the texts of high-school freshmen (aside from the subject matter).

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And not just Abedin and Clinton. Barbara Mikulski: "Whew once again u are in the thick of things." Jeffrey Farrow: "Wouldn't tell him U have a $ # & will work with him within it." (That $ # means "dollar number," i.e., budget figure.) Strobe Talbott: "Have had 2 sessions since u & I talked, having another Sat afternoon. No particular need for further guidance from u, but glad to connect at any time. Tks for terrific event in the 4-letter-word fishinf village." (It is not clear where this "4-letter-word fishinf village" is.)

Is this evidence of the degradation of the language? The lassitude of the government? The gradual slide into corrupt infantility of our ruling class?

If it's gradual, it's very gradual. It's true that the letters of statesmen such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were written in perfect English, with complete sentences and every word fully spelled out; we can see hundreds of them for ourselves with a simple Google search. It's also true that those perfect letters on perfect letterhead were for the most part not urgent communications on immediate matters of state, and were often dictated to secretaries. Formal letters of state still have formally correct spelling and grammar today. Immediate dispatches could be a very different thing.

Of course, in the mid-20th century many of those dispatches were done with telegrams, which enforced a brief style. So let us consider the handwritten letters of one of the great statesmen of the 19th century, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Here is a bit from a letter from him to the Marchioness of Londonderry: "I never went to Manchester; tho' the newspapers gave an account of my visit. And even, if I had, there is no opinion on that affair, that I shd. so much value as yr own." And to Lt. Gen. William Napier: "The despatch, wh: I wish to obtain, is one addressed by Sir Charles to the D. of Wellington on the organization of the Indian Army, & not the despatch, on the Defences of India, to wh: yr. communications refer."

Complete sentences, certainly, but what are these wh: for "which" and yr for "your" and shd for "should"? But Lady Londonderry was a close friend of Disraeli, and Napier was a military man. Surely he would be more formal with... Queen Victoria, perhaps?

Indeed. He did not call her "u" or "you"; he called her "Yr. Majesty." The rest was the same as ever: "Yr. Majesty once deigned to say, that Your Majesty wished, in these remarks, to have the temper of the House places before yr. Majesty, & to find out what yr Majesty cd. not meet in newspapers. This is the C of Exchequers excuse for these rough notes, written on the field of battle, wh: he himself offers to Yr Majesty."

Such abbreviations were common enough at the time, and were used in correspondence by some authors beloved by your English teacher. The great poet Percy Bysshe Shelley used them in letters, for example: "I see no reason why they shd. always continue so"; "Yr's with affection. PBS." So did the great novelist Thomas Hardy: "I shd say that a married daughter, Lady Rosamond Christie, I think she is, who is here, strikes me as a particularly sensible woman."

Ah, but they didn't use something as nearly illiterate as u for "you," did they?

Ahem. Here's another letter from Thomas Hardy, author of Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd: "I wish you wd tell me how u.r. when u. write."

Yes, that's Thomas Hardy in 1862, not Huma Abedin in 2010. He doesn't seem all that far from the madding crowd in the State Department, does he?

You and I are part of that abbreviating crowd too. We all do it from time to time. Sometimes brevity demands it, sometimes haste requires it, sometimes it helps convey an air of familiarity, and sometimes we simply have no good reason to write the words out in full: "Appt w/ Dr. Vogel on Wed Sep 30."

Some abbreviations are so well established we always use them (i.e., e.g., etc.), and may not even know how not to use them. It's not just the Latin ones, either. Tell me: How do you spell out Mrs.? Can you even say why there's an r in it?

I'll give you the answer on that one: Although we'll sometimes see missus or misses, the abbreviation Mrs. originally stood for "mistress." Hence the r. We just got so lazy in saying the word that we dropped the "tr." Are you a stickler? Perhaps you should start pronouncing Mrs. as "mistress." Go ahead. I dare you.

Do you protest that at least you have never spelled "you" as u? Oh. Have you never given someone an IOU? Don't be fooled by the story sometimes passed around that IOU stands for "I owe unto." We don't write "IOU John Smith $27.50." No, it stands, and has always stood — since it first appeared in the 17th century — for "I owe you." Perhaps if you have never incurred debts you may count yourself better than Thomas Hardy... provided you have written a few great novels that are taught in schools around the world.

But even then I would not be too harsh on Clinton, Abedin, et al., for their familiar brief forms. We should focus on the actual matters of state they deal with. Such as that gefilte fish.

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James Harbeck

James Harbeck is a professional word taster and sentence sommelier (an editor trained in linguistics). He is the author of the blog Sesquiotica and the book Songs of Love and Grammar.