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.
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.
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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