Steven Heller | Essays

Father of Shrek, Grandfather of Tweet

The cover of William Steig's book CDB

William Steig (1907-2003), was often way ahead of the curve. His book of drawings, The Lonely Ones (1942), prefigured the now common practice of satirizing personal neurosis; his children’s book, Shrek (1990), anticipated DreamWorks success with slimy green Ogres; and his CDB (1968) not only predicted vanity license plate abbreviations, it suggested the rise of Instant Messenger, SMS, iChat, and Twitter shorthand. Although the last was his most prescient work, Steig never got the credit as grandfather of the tweet.  

The cover of William Steig's book The Lonely Ones

Those who missed his hilariously morose graphic commentaries in The New Yorker (starting 1930 he created over 100 covers and countless cartoons) may remember Steig as a children’s book author and illustrator. He won the Caldecott Medal with his Sylvester and the Magic Pebble in the early 1970s and other honors quickly followed for his quirky takes on the venerable children’s picture book. He often focused his pathos and bathos on innocent young folk and young folk-like animals as they routinely ran into problems and obstacles in their quests for happiness and fulfillment. Roland of Roland the Minstrel Pig narrowly misses being crushed; Sylvester, a donkey, is turned into a rock. Amos the mouse in Amos and Boris falls overboard in mid-ocean while Boris the whale is beached after a hurricane. Abel, another mouse in Abel's Island, is marooned for a year, and Pearl, a young pig in The Amazing Bone, is almost cooked by a pesky fox. Shrek was, of course, a poor, misunderstood ogre, who rises from the muck to become a wealthy, better understood ogre. Eventually all find redemption, but you’ll have to read them yourself to find out how (and why). 

Steig was keen at combining innocence and menace, and like James Thurber, his sketchy line captured the essence of emotion. His drawings were shorthand for expression; similarly CDB was shorthand for conception. For over 40 years this book has both perplexed and excited its young and old readers, offering challenges and frustrations with a satisfying punch line. In the original Windmill paperback edition a summary of the book reads as follows: “Letters and words are used to create the sounds of words and simple sentences 4 u 2 figure out with the aid of illustrations.” This is a fairly accurate description of SMS-speak. Yet since the human capacity in the digital age to perceive such word games without visual aids has evolved to such a high degree of mastery, pictures are no longer necessary. Nonetheless, in this earlier stage of development (and since this was, after all, a picture book), Steig’s pictures were necessary. 

Above: spreads from William Steig's book CDB

CDB begins with a sketch of a boy and girl looking intently at a flower, as the boy says: C D B! (see the bee) / D B S A B-Z B. (the bee’s a buzz bee) / O, S N-D (author’s note: this phrase has always confounded me). While the word games are not always easy (particularly if English is not a first language), solving them is habit forming. Here’s another showing two boys in bed together (they’re brothers!!): R U C-P? (are you sleeping?) / S, I M. (yes, I am) / I M 2 (I am too). Here’s another with a picture of a proud chicken: D N S 5 X (the hen has five eggs). And here’s my favorite — because it is so true — showing a little boy looking longingly up at a bigger girl who says: I M 2 O-L 4 U (author’s note: you figure it out, I can’t translate everything for you).

When SMS and Instant Messenger came to my household in the late 90s, I wondered how my son (who was then in his early double digits) picked up the abbrevi-language so quickly. Had he been reading the real estate classifieds (drmn bldg w/ rivr vw), or was it just in the air? I only realized recently, as I was re-reading CDB (and very proud of myself for deciphering I M N A T-P — okay, its one of the easy ones), that this was the holy grail of this digital generation’s mode of communication. It only goes to prove what the writer Wolcott Gibbs said about William Steig in his foreword to The Lonely Ones: “For a good many years, William Steig has been drawing rational, though occasionally disconcerting, pictures. . . It is hard to define the special quality of these works since so many warring elements have gone into them — cruelty and compassion; burlesque and acute social perception. . .” Or maybe it doesn’t prove that. But it does prove that Steig was the grandfather of social networking. A N E 1 AV A P-LM W TH-T?

Posted in: Illustration, Media, Technology

Comments [25]

D B S A B-Z B is "The bee is a busy bee," not buzz bee. ;-)
Colin Peters

Huh? Disney had nothing to do with the The Shrek films.

Holy Sh*t! That's where grandpa got it from…

Joe Moran

Eddie, yeah, I was just gonna say. Shrek is a Dreamworks thing.

Editor's Note: Eddie and Kári, correction noted and made. Thank you.
Kári Emil Helgason

thanks Colin, now can you translate the rest?

And yes, Shrek is PDI/DreamWorks SKG.

(what does PDI stand for?)
steve heller

osnd = "oh yes, indeed."

osndd would be good too. "oh yes, indeedy."
Steven Rydberg

i think

osnd = "oh yes, andy."

When I was a kid I drew a little cartoon of a boy giving a girl a flower with a bee in it, and the girl screaming. The caption was:
A B, C D? E!
I thought I was extremely clever. If only someone had shown me this book.

What a delight to run into CDB here. I'm a huge fan, even beyond appropriating its convention for my blog (M.A/Emma).

The drawings are so charming and intense, particularly "Y R U Y-N-N?" "I N O" That little girl looks so sad, like many little girls who get into crying jags.

I also love the cadence of saying the letters properly. "D C-L S N D C", the "D D-R S N D I-V"

My copy has an extra page with "U R A B-U-T, L N" from an old friend, who was delighted my name fit into Steig's universe.

C U N V-N S!

O, S N-D may = "Oh, isn't He." Just a thought.

Joe Moran

Troy Kreiner

O, S N-D = Oh, yes indeed

As someone else already mentioned.
Luke G.

S = "is" or "has" in all of Steig's other puzzles. Not "yes."

"N-D-D" would = indeedy.

(And to answer your question Steve, PDI = Pacific Data Images.)

L8R G8Rs

VR/ << My own shorthand for "very respectfully,"
Joe Moran

Thanks for an interesting article. The cartoons with the alphabet puzzles are really entertaining. Its a fantastic mix of language, humour, puzzle and art, that only these amazing cartoonists and caricaturists bring to life. In today's SMS era maybe we don't realize the value of it, but he was really ahead of his time. Loved the simplicity of the drawings, and how he finds fun in the normal everyday stuff.

I M 2 O-L 4 U = I am too old for you!!!!

I love this stuff, he must be the same guy who wrote F U N E X (Have you any egg). S. V F X. (Yes, we have eggs) hahaha, brilliant!

Uh, not to be too phonologically nitpickity, but there is an art to real CDBism, and it is a different thing from the oftentimes obscure hybrid jargon of the SMS generation.

Your 'A N E 1 AV A P-LM W TH-T?' would be pronounced per Steig: 'aye en ee wun aye vee a pee-el em wu th-tee.' So the statment is incomprehensible to someone who is not used to parsing the hybrid phonology of SMS. The genius of Steig is that it is a perfectly lucid visual language that all children who know the alphabet and the English language can read. It was the first book I ever read.


Was Steig an immigrant or native English speaker Steve? I think you have, in the past, brought up a few emigre designers who have tried to create a hybridized language that I can't help but wonder if this was for many immigrants simply a way of trying to understand their difficultes with the language barrier. I can't recall specifically who it was, but I do remember you discussing a designer who tried his hand at a similar language, but it only made sense if you spoke in his thick German-tinged English.
Derrick Schultz


Good question. Steig was a native New Yorker, Brooklyn to be precise. I suppose Brooklynese is a foreign language.

The designer you are thinking of is Lucian Bernhard. He developed a phonetic form of writing. And, of course, Brad Thompson's monalphabet was designed to take the confusion out of caps and lower case in English.
steve heller

Here’s one that fits the conversation:

L-O. F U N-E X?
O S, V F X.
F U N E M?
O S, V F M.
O K, L F M N X.

Hint: It’s a breakfast customer talking to the server.
Tom Hurley

See the bee. The bee is a busy bee. Oh, isn't he?

O S-N-D does mean "oh, isn't he."

This is a great book… Had this since I was a wee little kid (think I got it from our Scholastic book club at school? I loved when those little 4-page book catalogs would arrive.)

true life

R U C-P? = Are you Sleepy?

O S N-D = Oh, It's Andy

L-X-&-R = Alexander

R U C-P + Are you sleepy, not sleeping.

This was a key book when I taught Children's Lit. at U. N. H. in l977.

O S N D = Oh isn't he in CDB, my mistake.

Jobs | July 12