Bringing Back CB Slang: A short history of “What’s Your Twenty?” (and why you should care)

What’s your 20? I’m sure you’ve heard it a thousand times before – if you’re in the entertainment biz, you likely say it all the time – and if not, well, I bet you’re jealous of those of us who do. (In that “I want to feel like I’m on the Dukes of Hazzard!” sort of way….). It’s a cool phrase that’s part of American English and the name of my walkie-talkie rental company.   When I was researching its cultural history, I discovered a really interesting parallel between the language and traditions that grew out of CB radio culture and those that we are creating now as we navigate social media’s explosion.  While platforms change, our culture’s tendency to [r]evolve following the introduction of each new technology remains the same and is limited only by technology itself.

The Dukes of Hazzard (1979)

The Dukes of Hazzard (1979)

So you can follow me here…let’s take a step back and learn a thing or two about citizens band (“CB”) radio. CB radio is a system of short-distance radio communication between people. In the late 1940′s, none other than Al Gross, the inventor of the walkie-talkie (and one of my heros!), started Citizen’s Radio Corp. to merchandise handhelds for the general public. Then in the 1960′s, things started to get interesting – CB radios became popular with small trade businesses (e.g., plumbers, electricians, etc.), truck drivers and radio hobbyists. Many CB clubs began to form, and a special CB slang language evolved – a language that included addressing other CBers not by their names, but instead by their CB “handles.”

And then came the pop culture explosion.

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

In the 70′s and 80′s, an interesting phenomenon began to develop. The CB allowed people to get to know one another in a quasi-anonymous manner. Many movies and stories about CBers and their on-air culture developed. References in pop culture – notably in films like Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and Convoy (1978); television shows such as Movin’ On (debuted 1974) and Convoy (debuted 1979) – catapulted CB radio to cult status in the mid-to-late ’70s. It was C.W. McCall’s “novelty song” Convoy (1976) (inspiration for both the movie and the tv show mentioned above), which featured droll conversation among CB-communicating truckers, that put several 10-code phrases (for example 10-4 for “understood” and our own “What’s your twenty?” (10-20) for “What’s your location?”) into common use in American English.  And many of of these terms have endured – there’s even a website, http://www.cbslang.com, dedicated to some of the more hilarious CB phrases – “I’m in my cowboy cadillac stuck behind a cheese wagon in the granny lane.”

Doesn’t this all sound strangely familiar? Was CB radio, and it’s secret language, 10-codes and handles, a precursor to internet chat rooms and today’s social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook? And – FTW! – I wonder whether certain hashtags and abbreviations will endure…long after Twitter itself evolves and goes the way of the CB radio. Which “social media” linguistic developments will stand the test of time?

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  • http://twitter.com/tjdietderich TJ Dietderich

    I love learning all about different slang! This article really takes me back to my old job trucking cross-country. I had an old CB and the truckers were some of the nicest guys in the world, always willing to help out a gal with a detour and whatnot. I wonder if cell phones have completely replaced that culture by now.

  • http://twitter.com/WY20 sherri, jason & matt

    Thanks, Teej! Wait – You Were A Trucker?? Maybe I shouldn't be surprised…but…I am! That's awesome. In my research, I discovered that truckers still do use CB! Even with the advent of the cell phone – likely for the same reason ppl use walkies for production and at events instead of mobiles – quicker, more reliable, dedicated channel. I need to see pix of you driving a semi. Stat.

  • Name

    Fun article. But, you are only partly right about the “ten codes.” They were originally developed for law enforcement use and then CB'ers picked them up. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten-code) If you travel a lot on Interstates, having a CB radio in your car is still very useful as truckers are a great source of traffic info, police locations, etc. Although, it's likely all your friends will make fun of you for having one (mine do!).

  • http://twitter.com/WY20 sherri, jason & matt

    Thanks! Yes – you're exactly right – 10-codes were created for law enforcement and other public officials in 1937 – but they only became popular among “laypeople” with the CB explosion in the 60s and 70s. I didn't want to write War and Peace for this post – wanted to keep it short. I'm jealous of your CB radio! I think I need to get one….

  • http://twitter.com/tjdietderich TJ Dietderich

    I love learning all about different slang! This article really takes me back to my old job trucking cross-country. I had an old CB and the truckers were some of the nicest guys in the world, always willing to help out a gal with a detour and whatnot. I wonder if cell phones have completely replaced that culture by now.

  • http://twitter.com/WY20 sherri, jason & matt

    Thanks, Teej! Wait – You Were A Trucker?? Maybe I shouldn't be surprised…but…I am! That's awesome. In my research, I discovered that truckers still do use CB! Even with the advent of the cell phone – likely for the same reason ppl use walkies for production and at events instead of mobiles – quicker, more reliable, dedicated channel. I need to see pix of you driving a semi. Stat.

  • Name

    Fun article. But, you are only partly right about the “ten codes.” They were originally developed for law enforcement use and then CB'ers picked them up. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten-code) If you travel a lot on Interstates, having a CB radio in your car is still very useful as truckers are a great source of traffic info, police locations, etc. Although, it's likely all your friends will make fun of you for having one (mine do!).

  • http://twitter.com/WY20 sherri, jason & matt

    Thanks! Yes – you're exactly right – 10-codes were created for law enforcement and other public officials in 1937 – but they only became popular among “laypeople” with the CB explosion in the 60s and 70s. I didn't want to write War and Peace for this post – wanted to keep it short. I'm jealous of your CB radio! I think I need to get one….

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