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Teens Create Language of Pager-Speak

Technology: Messages made from numerals are popular nationwide.

November 26, 1997|JOE MOZINGO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's a secret language among friends.

It may look like a jumble of numbers and asterisks, but it's actually a growing lexicon of the mundane, offbeat and obscene.

While the language doesn't have a name, young people across the Southland and the nation rely on it to communicate those little messages that don't warrant a long conversation: "good night," "you're on my mind" or something decidedly less friendly.

Welcome to the world of pager-speak.

By dialing numbers that look vaguely like digital letters--right side up or upside down--the young linguists put together words and phrases.

"They're on the cutting edge," said Michael Haddad, of Soft-Cell Communications in Beverly Hills. "They're the ones inventing the uses of the pager."

And as young people, in their teens to their early 20s, become the fastest growing group of pager users, companies from Motorola to MTV scramble to cater to them.

"Young people today are absolutely using pagers as a way to stay in touch with their friends and with their families," said Caroline Mockridge, a spokeswoman for MTV, which is now selling pagers.

The way they stay in touch is by relaying a code that conveys a mix of standard phrases and slang.

Pasadena High School student Suzie Mouradian, 17, used to carry a frayed crib sheet around that decoded scores of numerical messages. When she started high school three years ago, students were just beginning to experiment with this new form of communication.

"I've had so many people ask me to write out sheets," Mouradian said. "Now I know people who page like 10 people good night."

Sometimes pager-speak is a local dialect understood only among a group of friends, but some of the beeper codes follow a logic understood across regional and school boundaries.

For example, the command "go home" is written 90*401773. In the digital world, 9 looks like g, 0s are obvious Os, 4 is a legless H, 1 next to two 7s approximates the shape of an M, and 3 is a backward E.

In Flushing, N.Y., Katrina Schultz, 17, spells good morning the same way people in the know do in Los Angeles. In the beginning, Schultz said, "I had to explain it to my boyfriend. I had to give him a list of which numbers stand for which letters."

But the code is not limited to English.

In San Marcos in north San Diego County, Tania Vergara, 18, pages her friends in Spanish. After she types the phone number where she is, she leaves the numbers 50538, which if rotated upside down resembles the word besos, or kisses.

"That's how they know it's me," she said.

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In Glendale, Rebecca Kim, a senior at Hoover High School, communicates through pagers using English and Korean. When the digits 8282 are read out loud in Korean, they sound like the Korean words for "Hurry, hurry."

Kim has voice mail, but said she'd rather use the code to relay and receive short messages. She said that when she's driving and she receives a coded page, it is far more convenient than receiving a voice mail page that would require her to find a pay phone.

Mouradian's cousin likes to page her, "Hi, loser"--41*700512--or more derogatory names that she has to figure out on her own.

Pager use is thriving among high school students in spite of laws in California and many other states banning them from school grounds.

The law was enacted at a time when pager use had the stigma of drug dealing. Educators also complained about beeping in class.

Nowadays, teenagers turn the beeper signal off and keep the pagers under wraps at school. And more and more, pagers are not only about concise communication but also about style.

Of course, some codes do describe drugs and sex. For example, there's a three-digit code that means "Want to smoke pot?"

"If somebody's got some weed, they use 420 for it," said Jon Armstrong, a high school senior living in New Berlin, a Milwaukee suburb.

Armstrong said he heard that 420, which is used from Los Angeles to Houston to New York, originated from police codes used for marijuana busts. He also has heard rumors that 4:20 was the time that Grateful Dead icon Jerry Garcia died. (Garcia's body was found by a counselor at a drug rehab center at 4:23 a.m. on Aug. 9, 1995.)

At Armstrong's high school, he said, everyone he knows has pagers but only couples spend time spelling out and decoding long messages. Most people use the abbreviated codes.

One college student in Houston, who asked to remain anonymous, said the only messages he knew in high school were those he used to buy pot.

Other teenagers use the language to say things they would never say in person or on the phone. But sometimes their own distinct usage gives away their identity. Gary Saghetian, 18, of Pasadena figured out who was anonymously calling him a derogatory name by noticing the name-caller's unusual use of 6 for the first letter A.

For Kim, pager codes are a handy way to avoid needless small talk when you just want to relay a short message.

"It's like if your friend is taking their driving test the next day and you just want to say 'good luck,' " she said.

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