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Off to the Salt Mines

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Mary Lou is a former newspaper reporter in Memphis, Tennessee. One of her editors used to say he was off to the salt mines, meaning he was headed to do some challenging work. That expression is a reference to the grim practice of sending prisoners off to work in literal salt mines in Siberia. Through the linguistic process known as amelioration, that expression lost its original, extremely negative sense over time. Mary Lou is also curious about the old practice of adding #30# at the bottom of a story to indicate its end. There are many proposed explanations for this, going back to the 19th century. The most likely explanation connects this notation to a code outlined in 1864 in Orrin Wood’s Plan of Telegraphic Instruction, where the number 30 was the telegraphic code meaning finis, meaning “end” or “conclusion.” It had no particular meaning, it was just the next number in sequence when one was needed for an idea. This is part of a complete episode.

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