When I wrote my “swan song” for the May-June edition of Good Times and created a headline that said I was typing “30” for the last time, I thought readers would know what I was talking about. I was mistaken.
After 72 years in the newspaper business, journalism and typographical terms come naturally to me. When I started and pounded out stories on a manual typewriter, I put “-30-” at the end of the article because that’s what everyone else on the staff did. I didn’t know its origin, but I did know it meant “the end.”
There are many explanations about the origin of “-30-.’ Most agree that it can be traced to the days when news dispatches were transmitted by telegraph.
Bev DeBarros of Scranton, who has been a faithful Good Times reader for years, went to Wikipedia to decipher the headline. The one she liked best was that a single “X” indicated the end of a sentence; two of them, the end of a paragraph, and three meant the end of the story. The Roman numeral equivalent of 30 is XXX.
Another, and probably more plausible, explanation can be found in the Western Union “92 Code” of 1859, a series of numeric messages for sending text that is basically the same. When a telegrapher pounded out the dots and dashes for the numerals three and zero, he was indicating “no more — the end.”
The Western Union code was in use during the Civil War during which news dispatches from the front were transmitted by telegraph and always ended with “30.” News correspondents of the era apparently thought this was a good idea and adopted it.
The tradition continued when teletypewriters replaced the telegraph for sending wire service stories to newspapers. Many of the teletype operators were retrained Morse code “brass pounders” and to them it was only natural to end each story with “-30-“.
According to the American Journalism Review the use of the symbol was once so prevalent that it made its way into Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, which says -30- is “a sign of completion.”
The tradition of using it to cap off a piece of copy dropped off considerably when the computer replaced the typewriter in America’s newsrooms, the magazine article explained adding, “So it’s a term whose meaning is lost on many younger journalists.”
In its definition of 30, the dictionary added, “Extended metaphorically to the verb form to write 30, i.e. (that is), to conclude a career.
That’s just the way I used it in the headline on my column.
Maybe I should have added another Western Union code which sometimes found its way on teletype messages, “73” or “Best Regards.”
I would have meant it, too.