Dear Word Detective: My “Shorter Oxford English Dictionary” devotes almost a page in definitions and derivatives of the word “radio.” However, I cannot locate the origins of the word. Point me in the right direction if you are so inclined. — C. W. Wilson, via the Internet.
Inclined? Certainly. In fact, if I were any more inclined, I’d be entirely horizontal. I’ve often wondered, to pursue this tilt for a moment, when computer designers are going to get wise to the fact that what the average user really wants in a computer is not more glitzy software or “blazingly fast” chips. What we really want is a computer built into one of those full-tilt living-room recliners, with a little tray for snacks and a remote control. And maybe a mouse you can click with your toes. That would be real progress.
Oh, well, time to sit up straight and answer the question. Following your lead, I looked up “radio” in the Shorter Oxford, and you’re right — it’s no help at all. It says that “radio” comes from the Latin “radius,” but doesn’t even explain what “radius” means, which is “stick” or “staff.” If that bit of information doesn’t seem like much help, let me hasten to add that “radius” has a secondary meaning of “spoke of a wheel.” Now we’re getting somewhere. The metaphor of wheel-spokes was very useful when it came time in the 14th century to name the phenomenon of streams of energy emanating from a central source. Thus we dubbed them “rays,” giving us the basis for naming “light rays,” “x-rays” and several other kinds of “radiation.” Modern physics doesn’t talk too much about “rays” these days, having decided that wrangling over “waves” and “particles” is more fun, but you’ll still find “ray” in the names of certain kinds of radiation.
“Radio,” coined in the early 20th century, is actually a shortened form of the original moniker — “radiotelegraphy.” The first practical use of radio (also known even today in Britain as “wireless”) transmission was to emulate the unmodulated dots and dashes of conventional “wire” telegraphy. It was only after the technology had progressed to the stage of allowing the sending of voice, music and, of course, commercials, that the name was shortened to just “radio.”