A Living Language? Or Eu tu, Brute?

One of the most popular phrases from the dead language of Latin is Et tu, Brute? It is a Latin phrase literally meaning “and you, Brutus?” or “also you, Brutus?”, often translated as “You as well, Brutus?”, “You too, Brutus?”, or “Even you, Brutus?”. I’m sure we’ve all used the phrase at one time or another.

dead language
a language that is no longer spoken by anyone as their main language:
Latin is a dead language.


It’s largely locked in stone as to what the Latin phrase is but, as noted, there is some variation as to how it is translated into English. So even “dead” languages can have some variation in translation to other “living” languages. Ask any Biblical scholar on translations from Aramaic or Hebrew to English. It’s a critical part in setting apart various religious traditions. Part of this variation is because living languages are continually spoken, written, and otherwise propagated among people throughout a given culture. It’s how slang becomes mainstream. There is little in the way of formal grammar to stop this element of social change especially among newer generations. For the stern grammarians in the room: sorry, gag me with a spoon.

living language
a language that is still being used and spoken by people


I was thinking about dead vs living languages recently when I read my friend Thomas K4SWL’s post on his popular QRPer.com blog. His post was encouraging low power operators to sign not with the famous “73” but “72” instead. To use a current slang term, what up with that? I’ll quote K4SWL directly on this:

“72” isn’t a new ham radio abbreviation but according to my light research, it doesn’t date back to the earliest days of wireless either (please correct me if I’m wrong).

The late and great George Dobbs (G3RJV) notes in his book “QRP Basics” that 72 has been in use since the late 1980s as a way some operators identify that they’re running QRP or low power (generally 5 watts or less).

Thomas K4SWL was not creating something entirely new. The QRP icon George Dobbs G3RJV had acknowledged that the practice originally had currency in QRP circles in the 1980s. That’s over three decades ago. This was hardly a shockingly new revelation but something that Thomas was advocating in today’s rising popularity of QRP operations, especially in parks and on mountain peaks. Use 72 to promote QRP operations!

I commented on his post, perhaps channeling my “inner Onno” from Aussie-Land. I teased Thomas that he was dangerously treading on the controversial “living language” paradigm in amateur radio. The Grammar Police will surely track him down online, lol. I added a few comments about this monkey business on the cultural icon of using “73” as a QSO closing (or in any other communication in ham radio). I thought I’d amplify those comments here. Don’t read if you aren’t willing to spend the time with the argument I present. It’s lengthy. Or if, as the old Tareyton cigarette commercial slogan stated, you’d “rather fight than switch.”

Would you rather fight than switch your tolerance of a living language?

One of the persistently divisive themes in the culture of amateur radio, especially in the United States, involves language. Yep, words. How we use them and what others think they mean. The most divisive one emanates from a cultural artifact created at the beginning of “the wireless.” By importing some of the shorthand codes from the wired telegraphy industry, wireless ham operators started using 73 in the version of Morse Code they adopted to end a transmission. This was clearly for the sake of making transmissions more efficient. I’ll note that, frankly, there were many sets of “codes,” each reflecting what a sound should be interpreted as in terms of letters or numbers or punctuation:

A telegraph code is one of the character encodings used to transmit information by telegraphy. Morse code is the best-known such code. Telegraphy usually refers to the electrical telegraph, but telegraph systems using the optical telegraph were in use before that. A code consists of a number of code points, each corresponding to a letter of the alphabet, a numeral, or some other character. In codes intended for machines rather than humans, code points for control characters, such as carriage return, are required to control the operation of the mechanism. [Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telegraph_code]

In fact, there were many different sets of codes! An extensive number of the early “code books” can be found in the website page below. I must say, wow, what a “living” language they were creating! From 1880 thru 1957 — some 77 years — there were continually new sets of codes and modifications of previous ones. Latin, it wasn’t!

As the ARRL’s website claims, “The first authentic use of 73 is in the publication The National Telegraph Review and Operators’ Guide, first published in April 1857. At that time, 73 meant “My love to you!” Succeeding issues of this publication continued to use this definition of the term. Curiously enough, some of the other numerals then used have the same definition now that they had then, but within a short time, the use of 73 began to change.” I don’t think the Beatles used this meaning of 73 to pen, “PS: I love you“!

This rendition of the history of the shorthand code, 73, clearly places it in the domain of a “living language” artifact. The Dodge Manual listed it as a code for “Best Regards” which has become the point of divisiveness among far too many amateur operators, for far too long. The ARRL site tries to resolve the matter by ending with, “Today, amateurs use it more in the manner that James Reid had intended that it be used –a “friendly word between operators.” Hmm. Could those words be whatever the operator wanted as long as it was friendly?

As CBS TV News Anchor Walter Cronkite used to say at the end of his newscast, “And that’s the way it is!” Mr. Cronkite, as the reader likely knows, was a well-known amateur radio operator, too. Many hams do take the 73 as “Best regards” in the spirit of Cronkite’s newscast signature, seemingly prefering to fight rather than switch.

When, my friend Thomas K4SWL posted his article, he was doing what many of those groups did at the outset of “CW” operations: proposing a new numerical shortcode with a specific reference meaning. With tongue-in-cheek, I pointed out that in the Comments section on his blog post that he had strayed into the “living language” territory for ham radio grammar. The 3rd rail of the “dead language” view is using 73 with a plural notation: 73s, 73’s, etc. Even though Maxim used 73’s at the time, the Dead Language enthusiasts (think Latin) tend to rage about this usage. I’ve continued to puzzle over why is this so?

I taught engineering students in statistics and related classes (GIS, remote sensing) over several decades. As they wrote research papers in my courses, I noticed a tendency for some to approach writing as an engineering problem with an equation-like process. As the TV character Barney Fife might say: Obey All Rules! Now, not all of my engineering students had this viewpoint but enough did for me to remember. (See, by contrast, Bob Witte K0NR’s wonderful writing as an engineer and ham operator. Or Rob Sherwood NC0B’s clear and well-written articles.)

Moreover, engineering students were not the only ones who had such an approach, such as the social science student who told me that there was only one way to write a specific paragraph. Goodness. That flew in the face of this former radio News Director who rewrote news stories for the top-of-the-hour newscast back in the day. My gut told me that this hardening of the categories in writing came from previously struggling in English composition classes so the “rules” were clung to like a life raft but that’s just one person’s sense. I have no way to generalize that so it’s just my impression based on my personal experience.

Here’s an example from a well-known ham operator who is an expert in propagation, certainly imbued with a clear background in things involving solar science (and one whom I read often and respect a lot). Here is Tomas NW7US’s blog post on this 73 grammar “travesty”:

My pointing out this post isn’t a personal criticism of Tomas NW7US. It’s an intellectual statement about language use in amateur radio with Tomas’s public post as merely one clear example. Merely reviewing the Forums on eHam.net or QRZ.com reveals many others who make the very same argument. It IS a strongly held belief by a significant group of hams. But why? Especially since the history of these two-digit codes were so dynamic during their development.

Here are my observations on this as a professional sociologist and statistician. Scientists and engineers may well understand the grammar training they received but they are not experts in social linguistics. Those professionals are indeed schooled in how language is organized, operates, and changes over time. Sociologists often use social linguistics when they study social change as cultural shifts are always part of that process. And how these beliefs are stratified across a social group like the ham radio community is prime intellectual real estate for us. Many sociologists who specialize in analyzing social action (using dramaturgy) carefully analyze the meanings sent and received by social actors in a setting or context.

Why the strongly held beliefs today about how the two-digit code “73” should be used in oral and written communications? These ham operators invariably impose grammatical substitution rules to take the original shorthand definition of 73 as “best regards” to infer that 73s/‘s is the same as saying “best regards’s,” a silly thing to do as Tomas NW7US says. Something that only the Cat in the Hat might do, for instance. This rigid grammar logic assumes that early telegraphy shorthand is a completely dead set of denoted abbreviations. Dead such that the only meaning imputed to them has been fixed and, therefore, cannot violate the substituted grammatical expressions held by these ham operators. Somehow, the Soup Nazi episode from the TV show Seinfield comes to mind. For is is not a dead expression of telegrapher’s codes as there were indeed many varying expressions associated with this two-digit code. Thomas K4SWL’s declaration about 72, reflecting some quarter century in use, is just one example that our hobby language follows a “living” model.

I’ve searched high and low in the academic world of linguistics about what are common understandings about the grammar of such symbolic representations. The Linguistic Society of America told me that they have NO members who claim expertise in the grammar of such symbols. Not one. Even my social media contact Grammar Girl declined to weigh-in on this matter! She said she wasn’t not aware of any grammatical rules that would apply.

What is Linguistics?
In a nutshell: Linguistics is the scientific study of language. Linguists apply the scientific method to conduct formal studies of speech sounds and gestures, grammatical structures, and meaning across the world’s 6,000+ languages.


Thus, THERE ARE NO ACCEPTED RULES for conjugating ancient telegraphy symbol representations by anyone who has actual expertise in the matter of linguistics or grammar. These “substitution rules” used by some ham operators are created out of thin air. And they ain’t in Strunk & White either! To repeat, these hams are treating two-letter codes as if they are part of a “dead” language whereas they may have never been, given the dynamic history of telegraphy ciphers.

So, are these codes actually part of a living language set of cultural artefacts in today’s amateur radio?

I’ve done keyword searches periodically in eHam and QRZ for “73” versus “73s” or “73’s”. I was careful to isolate 73 without the s or ‘s. The results always show between 40-55% of the post authors using a plural form of 73. There is clear evidence of a living language cultural usage pattern by contemporary amateurs in those Forums. While not necessarily representative of all discourse by ham operators, it is enough evidence to demonstrate the differing patterns of usage existing in modern times for the two-digit symbol of 73. Even the icon Hiram Percy Maxim used 73’s in his QSL cards back in the period where this symbol was getting used frequently:

From the outset, it seems that even prominent hams had grammatical issues with how to express the underlying meaning in written language with the two-digit code, 73. Once more, how come? There appears to be a straightforward answer that has not been presented heretofore from my extensive reading in the amateur radio literature.

One academic social linguist who didn’t want to go on record with an official quote because of the lack of published evidence in the matter offered me an interpretation that as a professional sociologist I agree has merit. It ties together the existing cultural conflict and the dead vs living language distinction into an explanation.

The original use of 73 was not intended for spoken or written language but solely for the mode of Morse Code communication efficiency. It has various meanings associated with it in various “code books” early on. But it was never meant to always be a literal translation, only a shorthand for a common closing, much like the gentle wave of the hand to generally acknowledge another person. To illustrate a distinction by converse, try using SSB in a QSO but only say letters instead of enunciating full words. Clearly, this would be a different language format, one that would likely end the QSO with the other ham quickly! Why? It’s not meant to be communicated that way in voice modes.

But once in common (and understood) usage, the SYMBOL of 73 began to stand on its own, only mildly tethered to the original cheat sheet reference for these early shorthand representations. Recall the ARRL’s version of the history of 73, regaling us with the meandering underlying interpretations of the cipher. Remember, they were created solely to save the poor telegrapher’s ligaments and time hogging the party-line telegraph circuit. Thus, the substitution method invoked by some hams has NO grounding or support that I can find from professionals in linguistics or the most famous grammarian of the day, Mignon Fogarty (aka Grammar Girl). It truly is an argument made up in whole cloth by would-be grammar police. (Hmm. I wonder if they’d try to correct the rock band, Police, in their 1980 hit song, “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da”?)

The fact that many proficient CW ops don’t “hear” letters but words or abbreviations in the dits-and-dahs underscores the living vs dead language distinction. The dits and dahs are mostly heard as clusters of sounds representing a letter, number or punctuation mark. Moreover, there are “pro signs” that supercede the use of formal words in order to be more efficiently transmitted and received, the original intent of all of the telegrapher’s ciphers. So when the symbol, 73, is used, other hams understand the “positive feeling” being expressed, not strictly one example used in the past, such as best regards.

A contemporary analogy is the emoji. It’s a symbolic, cartoon-like figure that represents a expression, sentiment or other cultural objects. How “should” we conjugate an emoji symbol? There is no grammar syntax for doing so now or perhaps in the future because these symbols are very much only VAGUE representations of “emotions.” Any claims right now by supposed emoji grammar police would quickly get rebuffed as illegitimate. This is an analogy for the two-digit cipher of 73 meaning a “positive feeling” being expressed.

Emoji are a slightly more recent invention…If it’s a little cartoon figure that is free from the binds of punctuation, numbers, and letters, it’s an emoji.


I’ve facetiously written from time to time, just to aggravate the Grammar PoPo: 73’s, one to each of you! This ties in knots the logic of the substitution method since each and every single person technically gets one “73” (by substitution, best regards) while acknowledging that there are many recipients being spoken to. (This method in the sociology specialization of ethnomethodology is a well-known procedure of intentional rule-breaking to identify the taken-for-granted structure of meaning in communication.) Clearly, this is nonsense that only Dr. Seuss would embrace.

But Hiram Percy Maxim embraced the distinction between CW symbols and using them in written form as stand-alone terms in his widely reproduced QSL cards. From the keyword searching results I cited above, about half of the hams today understand that it’s a stand-alone symbol, detached from the specifics of “Best regards,” much as it was in the original period where these codes were formulated. It’s a grammar that largely never really was.

To conclude this set of analytical thoughts, behavior over time will eventually override previous rules. Ain’t isn’t a proper contraction according to grammar books. But it is in frequent use. The use of 73 to end a communication has not had in practice an explicit and sole connection to the telegrapher’s code list for a century now. As James Reid had intended that it be used, “friendly word between operators,” it has become just that. No more and no less.

So in my post comment, I give congratulations to Thomas K4SWL on promoting the use of 72 to represent QRP transmissions. Symbols like this are living language artifacts based on cultural change. Thanks K4SWL for helping to move this along! Viva le 72! (Hmm. Is this really gendered?)

To the Grammar Police: be like Elsa and let it go!

Best Regards’s,

Frank K4FMH

Frank Howell, K4FMH, is a regular contributor to AmateurRadio.com and writes from Mississippi, USA. Contact him at [email protected].

4 Responses to “A Living Language? Or Eu tu, Brute?”

  • Chris Hart, CT7AMT:

    Me too! A lovely piece about how our (English) language evolves. Fortunately we don’t have many who will preserve our language in aspic. How come the Americans found a longer way to expand the word ‘oblige’; whilst we can say ‘you are obliged’ it would seem that even US presidents, going back as as far as WW2, have coined ‘obligated’. Well so what? We (Brits) say transport, Yanks say transportation.
    The French, apparently, had no words for the weekend, so they adopted ours. This seems to have enraged those who wish to preserve French as it has always been.
    Enough! I talk too much! Regarding the 73 thing, I find, when I sign off an email to a fellow ham I say 73, but when using voice I am often heard to say ’73s my friend’, a kind of inflation into the plural? Like best wishes instead of best wish?
    Thanks Frank,
    or should I say just one thank?

  • Frank K4FMH:

    Hi Chris,

    Yes, I prefer the many thanks, thank you, LOL!

    As a Presenter on the ICQ Podcast for some 12 years, I’ve learned (or learnt?) numerous nuances of the differences in English spoken by the British and Americans. It’s a very textured and enjoyable experience for me.

    As I tried to say in this essay, the “73” symbol has long been just that, a symbol that stands on its own. Much like a hand wave or…shaking hands as a greeting. Do any of us use the mutual handshake to check for weapons as it was originated to do? It’s a general gesture much like a hand wave, I think.

    I spent a few years pondering the “grammar substitution rules” ideology in amateur radio. The symbol thing became much clearer once emoji’s came on the scene. I do hope the Grammar Police will begin to take a pass…as I most frequently use the plural form of 73s myself.

    Thanks for the kind words, Chris.

    Best Regards’s (lol),


  • Paul Smith/k5prs:

    Best Best Regardses? bizarre!

  • Lenny W2BVH:

    Two proposals.
    1. 73, 73s, 73’s are synonyms with no distinction.
    2. 73s adds a possessive to 73. Best regards changes to my best regards.
    Lenny W2BVH

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