After writing about "crash blossoms" in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, I've gotten plenty of responses from readers sending in their own favorite examples of unintentionally ambiguous headlines. I've also been hearing more about an anecdote I mentioned, relating to a legendary telegram long attributed to Cary Grant.
In the column, I pointed out that it's not just headlines that run the risk of ambiguity thanks to the omission of "little words" like forms of the verb to be. To illustrate the potential ambiguity of "telegraphese," I dusted off an old story about Cary Grant that appeared in the pages of Time on July 27, 1962. Here's how Time told it:
In his studio office, he keeps three tremendous photographs of his wives and numberless mementos of his long and lofty career. "The good old days are now," he grins amiably. A short time ago, a magazine editor wired him: HOW OLD CARY GRANT? And he wired back: OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?
Even though Time reported the story as fact, it does seem just a bit too good to be true. In Cary Grant: A Biography, Marc Eliot dismisses the purported telegram out of hand as fiction:
In 1962, Time, doing a story on Grant, was said to have wired the question to Grant, who sent back his "Old Cary Grant" reply. The story is apocryphal; no telegram was ever sent to Grant; nor did he ever reply in kind.
I wasn't entirely sold on Eliot's debunking, however, because he doesn't even get the Time story right: the magazine didn't say that it was one of their editors who sent the telegram, just that "a magazine editor" sent it. And how can Eliot be so sure that such a telegram was never sent? He doesn't say how he knows. So, following my fact-checker's suggestion, I decided to say in the column that the Cary Grant telegraph was "possibly apocryphal."
After the "crash blossoms" column was published, I heard from two different readers about an earlier version of this story with a different celebrity as the topic of the telegraph: Gar Wood, a once-famous speedboat racer and inventor.Sam Clements notes that the Gar Wood version was floating around at least five years before the Time piece on Cary Grant. In the December 14, 1957 issue of the Anniston (Alabama) Star, there's a short item about "an old newspaperman" telling of his managing editor, who would constantly send him nagging telegrams to check up on details of his out-of-town stories:
On one such occasion, the reporter was covering a big speedboat regatta involving some of the all-time greats in the sport. He had filed his story and just managed to get to sleep on the heartless hotel bed mattress when a knock came to the door.
It was a bellboy with another of those telegrams.
"How old Gar Wood?" it inquired bluntly.
Shortly thereafter, the managing editor found himself confronted with this succinct reply:
"Old Gar Wood fine. How you?"
Another twist on the Gar Wood story was recounted by Jack Paar in his 1961 book My Saber is Bent:
When Tom [Ferris] was in charge of publicizing the city of Miami Beach, he got a wire from a man in New York. It read: "Please wire how old Gar Wood is." Ferris wired back: "Old Gar Wood is fine. How you?"
What's particularly interesting about this version is that it manages to pull off the joke without deleting the word is. That seems to be a less elegant presentation, since it doesn't exploit the compact nature of telegraphic English.
Reader Jamie Lipson lays out the two main variations of the story that have been told over the years:
(1) Query by magazine editor ("reporter"? "writer"?), snappy reply by Cary Grant. Time Magazine apparently reported in 1962 that once, Grant himself had read a telegram sent to either him or his agent, and wrote the smart-alecky reply himself.
(2) Query by editor, smart-alecky reply by reporter. In this second version, the subject is not Cary Grant but the inventor and motorboat racer Garfield ("Gar") Wood. This is the version I remember hearing myself many years ago. It's re-told on the Web, here.
I suppose both stories might be true. I prefer the second because it's probably older; because the name is obscure now but the man deserves to be remembered; and above all because "HOW OLD GAR WOOD?" is uniformly monosyllabic.
Could be that Grant knew about the earlier exchange and couldn't resist imitating it.
Through all of these retellings, the telegram appears to have the hallmarks of urban folklore, which spreads spontaneously in virus-like fashion, mutating into various forms along the way. We'll probably never know if a reporter ever sent the Gar Wood telegram, but I highly doubt that Cary Grant "couldn't resist imitating" an earlier cable message. Rather, it's more likely that the anecdote got associated with Grant as a more recognizable name, just as witty quotations inevitably get attributed to Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, or Winston Churchill.
And finally, Charlie Treuhold points out that "telegrams did not allow for punctuation, so that Cary Grant's wire would have read 'CARY GRANT FINE STOP HOW YOU.'" Little did I know the can of worms this telegraphic story would open! In future decades, I wonder, will we be talking in such detail about legendary tweets?
Update: Nancy Nelson, Cary Grant's onetime agent and manager, wrote a letter to the Times in which she authoritatively debunks the anecdote. According to Nelson, when Grant was asked about it, he responded, "It never happened, but it's one of the things I wish I had said.''
Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer