Waugh and “Cablese”

A letter in the Guardian attributes a humorous but effective example of the use of “cablese” language to a quote of Evelyn Waugh. It is true that Waugh brilliantly parodied the language used by foreign correspondents and their home based employers in his 1938 novel Scoop. But the letter may go astray when it cites Waugh as the author of this particular “cablese” quote:

Signing off in style

Alex Clark’s article brought to mind one of the most splendid resignation notes (“I quit! The art of resigning in style”, Focus). Newspaper foreign correspondents in the days of transatlantic communication by telegram would write in a journalistic shorthand to save cost; the full article would be fleshed out by the editor. While in America, Evelyn Waugh regarded his articles as sacrosanct. Consequently, he would transcribe his writing on to a telegram, verbatim.

The cost did not go down well and the newspaper, after repeated warnings to keep telegrams shorter, issued an ultimatum: shorter telegrams or you’re out of a job. Waugh’s resignation telegram was a miracle of brevity: “JOB UPSTICK ARSEWISE WAUGH.”
David Hill
Penryn, Cornwall

Firstly, Waugh and his novel’s characters sent and received their cables from Africa, not America. Waugh did write articles about his late 1940s trips to America, but these were long articles (not news reports) which he probably wrote after returning to England. He was not acting as a foreign correspondent for a particular paper on his American trips. Nor do I recall reading the quoted language in Waugh’s novel Scoop or travel book Waugh in Abyssinia where it might have been relevant. Moreover, the terse resignation message quoted in the letter has received several other attributions, none involving Waugh.  For example Sam Leith in his book Sod’s Law: Why life always lands butter-side down (2009) writes:

Around the middle of the last century, so the story goes, the managing editor of one of Britain’s national newspapers was trawling through the ledgers when he noticed that the newspaper was, every month, paying a substantial retainer to a correspondent in a part of the world Alan Clark would have referred to as Bongo-Bongo Land.  He had never heard of this correspondent. A trawl through the cuttings library established that nor had anybody else: the last time this man’s byline had appeared on a dispatch was in the previous decade. The foreign editor was instructed to find out what was up.

He sent a telegram: ‘WHY UNFILE’. With surprising promptness the reply came back: ‘UNFILE UNHISTORY’. He sent another telegram: ‘UNSTORY UNJOB’. The reply came: ‘UPSTICK JOB ARSEWISE’

A more recent quote of the apocryphal cable cites Ernest Hemingway as the source. This is from John Osman. Life, Love Laughter, Liberty (2015):

…I wonder if cabling, or “cablese”, still exists in these days of emails, mobile phones and the internet. I hope so, if only so that young foreign correspondents might rise to the challenge of trying to outdo Ernest Hemingway. Legend has it that he sent the most famous cablese service message of all time. In every newsroom in which I ever worked, it was believed that it was dispatched by the author to the news agency employing him during the Spanish Civil War.

When he decided that he had experienced enough of war reporting and resigned, he allegedly put it like this:


I shall not be surprised if somebody tells me that the story is just a myth. True or not its cablese meaning was clear, if coarse.

Unless Hemingway was working for a British news service, he might have spelled it “ASSWISE”. The Google search result shows other sources dating back to the 1980s, including a 1983 issue of the Far East Economic Review, but those have less context than the ones above and, from what is available, do not involve Waugh or his writings.

I think that it’s fair to say that the Guardian’s letter correctly identifies Waugh as a prime source for the successful comic application of  “cablese” language, if not, perhaps, this particular phrase. Anyone among our readers who may know of Waugh’s use of that phrase or of any other source for its original use is invited to comment as provided below.

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