Wednesday, June 1, 2011

It’s 30 for 30

A recent New York Times story about a shooting ended by stating that the case would be tried by “February 30.”  A few days later, the Times published this explanation:

“An article on Thursday…misstated the schedule set by a judge for a trial in the case. The trial is expected to begin ‘by February’, not ‘by February 30.’ The error occurred when an editor saw the symbol ‘-30-’ typed at the bottom of the reporter’s article and combined it with the last word, ‘February’. It is actually a notation that journalists have used through the years to denote the end of an article.”

A further explanation pointed out that the 30 symbol is no longer much used and many journalists have never even heard of it.  It’s a victim of the computer age, in which reporters transmit their entire stories intact, not “take by take,” on 8-1/2x11 sheets of copy paper, carried one at a time to the composing room, as in typewriter days.

No one seems sure how the use of 30 began.  The most common theory is that it was a sign-off code developed by telegraph operators, perhaps from the use of the symbol XXX, which would be 30 in Roman numerals. One version suggests that the first news story sent by telegraph consisted of 30 words. Another story, whose apocryphal nature seems self-evident, is that reporters signed 30 to demand an increase in pay to $30 a week.

It has also been suggested that 30 was a British mis-reading of 80, which resembles the Bengali symbol for “farewell” and was used on correspondence in India.  Yet another theory is about a telegraph operator who remained at his post during a breaking news story, until he keeled over dead—30 hours later.

The earliest citation of 30 is in Funk’s Standard Dictionary of 1895 (pre-Wagnall, apparently), which simply states that it is the printer or telegrapher’s symbol for the end of a dispatch.  No explanation is provided.

Other theories, of greater and lesser believability, include:
            - The hash mark (#) was the typical symbol of the end of a story, and to save time, many typists didn’t hit the shift bar, so 3 was printed instead, and a zero added just for looks.
            - When the Associated Press was founded, each member was entitled to receive 30 wire stories per day.  The 30 indicated that it was the last one.
            - Wire services customarily stopped transmitting at 30 minutes past the hour.
            - It refers to the 30 pieces of silver received by Judas Iscariot for the betrayal of Christ.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is not yet ready to sign 30 to his dispatches, although many readers hope that he is at least up to 29. 

            A news reporter named Bertie
            Wed a copyeditor called Gertie.
                        When the stork paid a call,
                        They decided “That’s all,”
            And that’s why they named the kid Thirty.

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