Victor Hugo? Oscar Wilde? Anonymous?
Quote Investigator: The novel “Les Misérables” was published in 1862, and the earliest instance of the Hugo anecdote known to QI appeared in 1892. Details for this citation are given further below. However, the thirty year delay casts doubt on the story. The connection to Oscar Wilde appeared much later.
A similar tale about the exchange of extraordinarily concise messages was printed four decades earlier in April 1850 in “The Nottinghamshire Guardian” paper in Nottinghamshire, England:[ref] 1850 April 25, The Nottinghamshire Guardian, VARIETIES, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Nottinghamshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)[/ref]
In the briefest correspondence known, only two figures were used, the first contained a note of interrogation (?), implying “Is there any news?” The answer was a cipher (0), “None.”
After presenting the item above, a different complementary story was told about a message painted on a chimney:
This was clever; but neighbour Shuttleworth, in Nottingham Market Place, beats it. He has on his chimney two large T’s, one painted black the other green, to intimate that he sells black and green tea.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
This story pair was reprinted in several newspapers with small alterations to the words and punctuation, e.g., “cypher” was sometimes spelled “cipher”, and “tea” was sometimes changed to “teas”. In May 1850 the “Birmingham Journal” of West Midlands, England shared the tales[ref] 1850 May 4, Birmingham Journal, VARIETIES, Quote Page 3, Column 6, West Midlands, England. (British Newspaper Archive)[/ref] and in June 1851 the “Nottingham Review” of Nottinghamshire, England printed them.[ref] 1851 June 27, Nottingham Review (Nottingham Review and General Advertiser for the Midland Counties), (Untitled short item), Quote Page 4, Column 4, Nottinghamshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)[/ref]
Next the news appeared in “The Hampshire Advertiser” of Southampton, England[ref] 1851 July 12, Hampshire Advertiser, The Provinces, Worthy of Jonathan, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Southampton, England. (19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II)[/ref] and “The Observer” of London.[ref] 1851 July 20, The Observer (Observer Sunday), Worthy of Jonathan (Short Item), Quote Page 7, Column 5, London, Middlesex. (NewspaperArchive)[/ref] The two papers acknowledged the “Nottingham Review”.
By August 1851 the story about communication via punctuation had crossed the Atlantic and appeared in the “Oneida Chief” of Clinton, New York[ref] 1851 August 14, Oneida Chief, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 2, Column 4, Clinton, New York. (Old Fulton)[/ref] followed by other newspapers such as the “The Spirit of the Times” in New York[ref] 1851 August 23, The Spirit of the Times, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 322, Column 1, New York. (Old Fulton)[/ref] and the “Springfield Daily Republican” of Springfield, Massachusetts.[ref] 1851 August 28, Springfield Daily Republican (Springfield Republican), (Freestanding short filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 3, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]
In September 1854 the “Portland Weekly Advertiser” of Maine kept the story circulating by printing a version which roughly specified the locations of the two participants. Interestingly, the first character was an exclamation mark instead of a question mark:[ref] 1854 September 5, Portland Weekly Advertiser, Short Letters, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Portland, Maine. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]
But the shortest correspondence on record is the one between an American merchant in want of news and his London agent. The letter ran thus:
And the answer thus:
Being the briefest possible intimation that there was nothing stirring.
In December 1854 the magazine “Yankee Notions” of New York printed the text given above with one modification. The exclamation mark was changed back to a question mark.[ref] 1854 December, Yankee Notions, Volume 3, Number 12, Short Letters, Quote Page 363, Column 2, Published by T. W. Strong, Nassau Street, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]
Three decades later in 1885 the tale was still being disseminated. The book “Pastime Papers” by Frederick Saunders included an instance in a chapter about “Letters and Letter-Writing”. The preceding example highlighted a humorous sentence:[ref] 1885, Pastime Papers, by Frederick Saunders, Letters and Letter-Writing, Start Page 25, Quote Page 37, Published by Thomas Whittaker, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]
Among the eccentricities of epistolary correspondence may be classed the following summing-up of a letter of friendship: “Give everybody’s love to everybody, so that nobody may be aggrieved by anybody being forgotten by somebody.”
In the briefest correspondence known, only two figures were used: the first contained a note of interrogation (?) — implying, Is there any news? The answer was a cipher (o) — None.
In 1892 the anecdote featuring Victor Hugo appeared in the “Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities” by William S. Walsh. This tale was also based on the exchange of very terse letters, but the character sent in the reply message was different:[ref] 1892, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities by William S. Walsh, Quote Page 600, J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Republished by Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan in 1966) (Verified with scans of republished edition; Google Books Full View) link [/ref]
But the shortest correspondence ever known took place between Victor Hugo and his publisher, just after the publication of “Les Misérables.” The poet, impatient to learn of the success of the book, sent off a letter which contained only the following:
And he received the following entirely satisfactory answer:
The 1981 edition of the “Guinness Book of World Records” retold the Victor Hugo story:[ref] 1981, Guinness Book of World Records: 1981 Edition by Norris McWhirter, Section: Arts & Entertainments, Quote Page 216, Published by Bantam Books, New York. (Paperback edition published March 1981; verified with scans)[/ref]
The shortest literary correspondence on record was that between Victor Marie Hugo (l802-85) and his publisher, Hurst and Blackett, in l862. The author was on holiday and anxious to know how his new novel Les Misérables was selling. He wrote “?”. The reply was ‘!’.
By 2013 another variant of the tale was circulating in which the famous wit Oscar Wilde was identified as a participant. After an unnamed book was published by Wilde he wished to know how well it was selling:[ref] 2013, On Message: Precision Communication for the Digital Age by Theo Theobald, Quote Page 27, Kogan Page Publishers. (Google Books Preview)[/ref]
In these pre-email days, a telegram was despatched of such simplistic perfection that it was hard to top. The missive contained a single character, a question mark.
In response, the publisher matched the brilliance of the enquiry with a return telegram, stating that sales were indeed surpassing any expectation; it too contained only one character, an exclamation mark.
In conclusion, QI conjectures that all of these tales of brief correspondence were fictional, and they were published simply to amuse readers. It is conceivable that there was a seed of truth to the 1850 story, but it would be difficult to recover this seed.
Based on current evidence, the Victor Hugo story variant first appeared implausibly late, and it was quite similar to the preexisting 1850 tale. The Oscar Wilde variant appeared even later and has no substantive support.
Update History: On June 27, 2014 the citations dated July 12, 1851 and July 20, 1851 were added. On August 2, 2016 three citations were added with the following dates: April 25, 1850; May 4, 1850; and June 27, 1851.
(Great thanks to John Baker who asked about this anecdote. Baker located the 1892 citation. He also found the important “Yankee Notions” citation in 1854. Special thanks to Andrew Steinberg who located the valuable citation dated July 20, 1851. Many thanks to Daniel Galef who told QI about the citation dated June 27, 1851. Any errors are the responsibility of QI.)