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Domenico Felaco IK6QGE

Amateur radio words

Etymological curiosities

All the words in any language keep a track of the path followed from their documented origin to the present forms.
Linguistics, in general, and philology and etymology, in particular, may explore these paths and help us to trace the events that influenced them.
We will apply, below, this type of investigation to some of the words which are more frequently used in amateur radio activity, not claiming to be exhaustive, of course, but merely trying to search for and highlight the links which may be properly considered as "etymological curiosities".


The word radio comes from the Latin radius, a word that first denoted a rod or a stick and then, more specifically, the wooden bar used to level the grain in the containers which were used to measure its quantity and, finally, by similarity, the spoke that connected the hub of a wheel to its rim.
Pushing the research further back in time, we can find the Greek rhábdos, which indicated a stick or a root, from which the Italian word rabdomante, that is the person who claims to be able to find water in soils using exactly a wand.
In the transition from Latin to the vernacular language, many dental or velar consonants have undergone a process of palatalization, so that we have raggio from radius and in the same way we have, for example, meriggio from meridies, seggio from sedium and so on.
The raggio, by similarity with the function that it had in a wheel, indicated, as a result, all that departed from a point of origin and spread outward, as a light ray or the radius of a circle or, with a further variation in the pronunciation, razzo.
In the words derived from radius, the process of palatalization has not been generalized, so we have raggio, on the one hand, but, for example, radiare (in the sense of expelling) or radioso (in the sense of bright, shining), on the other hand.
Edouard Branly and Marie Curie, at the end of the nineteenth century, began almost simultaneously using the term radio in the current meaning, the one calling radioconducteur his new development of the Calzecchi Onesti's coherer and the other one proposing the term radioactivity to indicate the power of uranium to produce rays or radiations and, subsequently, calling radio (radium) the chemical element she had discovered. Both of them used, of course, the classical pronunciation with the dental [d].
A few years later, when it was necessary to talk about electromagnetic waves propagating from a source and carrying a message, rather general and approximate expressions were adopted even in official patent documents as, for example, wireless telegraphy or transmission of electric impulses and signals.
The terminology was stabilized in 1906 when, at a conference in Berlin, under the obvious influence of the terms introduced by Branly and Curie, the word radio was adopted to indicate the tools that were used to receive and transmit electromagnetic waves and also to refer to the activity that took place with those tools.
From that date the word radio has been accepted in most modern languages, (eg: in Englishan amateur radio station; in Spanish - una estación de radio; in French - écouter une émission de radio; in German - Radio hören), even if alternative terms are still used, such as wireless in English or Rundfunk in German.
In English, demonstrating that radio is a newly acquired term, the plural form is not formed according to the general rule applied to most words ending in -o, that is to say adding -es to the singular, as in potato/potatoes, tomato/tomatoes, but only by adding -s, radio/radios, as it happens in the case of other newly acquired words (moto/motos, studio/studios, photo/photos, video/videos).
In Italian, however, the word radio is invariable because, perhaps wrongly, it is perceived as an abbreviation ending in -o and, as such, it does not change in the plural, as it also happens with the words moto-(motocicletta)/moto, foto-(fotografia)/foto, auto-(automobile)/auto and so on, up to the recently acquired an discussed euro-(Europa)/euro.


A first theory derives the word antenna from Antemnae, a town of the Sabines, also mentioned in the seventh book of the Aeneid by Virgil (v. 968: "Five cities forge their arms: th' Atinian pow'rs, Antemnae...."), located in the area where the Aniene and the Tiber flow together and, therefore, ante amnes, in front of the rivers.
This is a common process in the formation of place names. Teramo, for example, ancient Interamnia, and also Termoli and Terni, are so called because they were located between two rivers, that is inter amnes.
The term antenna, used to indicate all that was made by a long and thin wooden rod, would be derived from the poles and the masts which were produced in the area of Antemnae and that were used for the construction of various tools. The group mn in Antemnae would be transformed in the group nn by assimilation, which is the linguistic process that occurs when two adjacent phonemes tend to become identical.
A second hypothesis, which seems more convincing, reconstructs the fusion of ante, in front of, and the Indo-European root ten, to stretch, to lay, from which would emerge the word antenna, denoting any object that extends above or in front of something, like, for example, the long pole which, placed perpendicularly or in an oblique position on the mast of a ship, was used to spread the sails.
The last mentioned sense, still present in nautical terminology, has left a trace in literature, as in the Iliad of Homer translated by Vincenzo Monti, who writes: “...sciolser gli achivi le veloci antenne... ” or “...né consentir che antenna in mar si spinga...”.
Later, the word antenna came to denote, by similarity, also the long rods that support gonfalons, banners, standards, and flags.
In zoology, the sensitive appendages on the head of many insects and crustaceans are called antennae, from which the use in figurative phrases such as prick up the antennae, indicating the need for greater attention to perceive from the environment messages that otherwise might be missed.
The term contained all that was necessary, then, from long, thin shape to the possibility to detect and transmit weak signals, to persuade Guglielmo Marconi, during his early experiments, to call antenna, in the meaning currently accepted in the field of communications, the pole on top of which he placed the terminal of his oscillator.
The word antenna was accepted, then, with some variation in spelling, in many modern languages (English: antenna; French antenne; German.: Antenne; Spanish: antena).
A synonym in the Italian language is ačreo, which, like the English word aerial [eəriəl], is used to indicate an external antenna, particularly a wire one, suspended in the air.


Every language is a system of arbitrary phonetic symbols used to produce verbal messages that pass from the speaker's vocal apparatus to the ears of the listener who, if the language code is shared, has the possibility to find out the thought of his interlocutor.
Verbal communication can occur only if the speaker and the listener are within earshot, unless you are able to devise some system to send your voice (phone) away (tele).
Neglecting the modest results that can be achieved with powerful voices - like the one of the Greek hero Stentor, mentioned by Homer, from whose name derives, in fact, the word stentorian - or by various mechanical means of amplification, starting from the Greek theatre masks that had, among other functions, also that of megaphones, it is quite clear that in order to cover significant distances, at least a telephone must be used and, to make it work, it is necessary a microphone, from the greek mikrós, small, and phōné, voice.
From a linguistic point of view, the use of the microphone revolutionized long-distance communication because it transforms the voice into electrical impulses that can be processed and sent to a receiving apparatus that can rebuild the verbal message as it had been produced eliminating, to an extent which is proportional to the fidelity of the reproduction, the possibility of errors due to the second encoding.
The word microphone has not suffered the fate of many words of Latin or Greek origin which reached, over the centuries, the Anglo-Saxon world and then came back, on the basis of a strong technological and commercial supremacy, with an anglicized pronunciation, so that they are perceived by most people as belonging to the English language.
Micro ['mikro], however, as the first part of several compound words, was returned with the pronunciation changed into ['maikro], similarly, for example, to the winged Greek goddess of victory Nike ['ni: ke:] which was transformed into ['naik].
In Italian, the word microphone can be shortened in micro, as well as the English word microphone [ˈmaikrəˌfəun] is abbreviated in mike ['maik], which is also found in the verb to mike, used in the sense of giving someone a microphone and hence, unfortunately, the Italian form microfonare.


Waterman, Breve storia della linguistica, La Nuova Italia, 1968.

Aniello Gentile, Principi di Trascrizione fonetica, Liguori, Napoli, 1966.

Devoto-Oli, Vocabolario illustrato della lingua italiana, Le Monnier.;;;;

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