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Old Electronics Terms Show Language Drift Over the Decades

A recent video appearing on Laurence Brown’s “Lost in the Pond” YouTube channel discusses six English words brought to America in the 1600s, during its colony days. Many of these words can be traced to the plays of William Shakespeare and were therefore used in England during the late 1500s and early 1600s. Although the use of these words died out in England four centuries ago, they are still somewhat common in the United States. The six words from Brown’s video are:

Yonder – means “over there” as in “He lives over yonder” or “there” as in “Off we go, into the wild blue yonder.”

Catty-cornered (in the US Southeast) or Kitty-cornered (in the Northern and Western US) – means diagonally across, as in “the house kitty-corner from ours.” This word evolved from the archaic English word “cater,” which means to cut something or to move something diagonally.

Fall – as in autumn. Refers to the period during the year when leaves fall off the trees.

Homely – which now means “comfortable in someone’s home” or “homey” in England, but it means “not very good looking” in the US.

Flapjack – which refers to a pancake in the US. This word fell out of use In the UK, but it reappeared in the 1930s as the name of a snack made of oats and resembling a granola bar.

Skim milk – which is called “skimmed milk” in the UK, possibly because we’re just lazy in the US.

These usage differences are often called language drift. I’ve heard that the dialect of Spanish used in Mexico is similarly archaic compared to the Spanish language used in modern Spain. I’ve also been told by a native Central American Spanish speaker that my version of Spanish, learned six decades ago in Kentucky’s public school system, sounds like I have an Italian accent. Go figure.

Brown’s amusing video reminded me that many terms in electronics have similarly fallen out of favor over the last few decades. I’m old enough to remember or at least have seen the following terms, written down in no particular order.

Nybble – referred to a 4-bit word and was a knock-off of “byte,” but I never see this term used any more. AMD’s 2900 family of 4-bit slice chips were also referred to as “nybble slices.”

Condenser – is the old name for a capacitor. An even older term for a condenser is “accumulator.”

Coil – more commonly called an inductor today.

Choke – another term for inductor. It refers to “choking off the current” at high frequencies.

Rheostat – a 2- or 3-terminal variable resistor, more commonly called a potentiometer or “pot” today. Technically, a potentiometer is always a 3-terminal device but rheostat and potentiometer have been used as synonyms for decades.

 

Power rheostat. Image credit: Ohmite

Dry cell – referred to a sealed battery cell that used a paste electrolyte. Generally, we just say “battery” today, as in “AA batteries,” even though a “battery” is supposed to be a composite device made of dry or wet cells. No one says “I’m going to Harbor Freight” to pick up a package of AA dry cells.”

Octal – means base 8 today but, in decades past, this term referred to an 8-pin tube socket. Octal (base-8) numeric notation was far more common during the 1980s and was used by many minicomputer systems makers such as Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and Hewlett-Packard (HP). Octal notation was especially useful for DEC’s 18-bit minicomputer architectures (evenly divisible by 3), but these days, you’re much more likely to see hexadecimal (hex, or 4-bit) notation, which is far better for today’s 8-, 16-, 32-, 64-, and 128-bit computer architectures.

Micro-micro-Farad – currently called picofarad (pF) or “puff” in the SI system.

Milli-micro-Farad – I don’t recall using the SI system’s Nanofarads (nF) in the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s. I don’t think this unit of capacitance was used in the US until more recently. Anyone for milli-micro-Farad?

MilliFarad – gone and forgotten.

MFD or mfd – an older and more confusing way to print microfarad (µF) on a capacitor, before fancier printing methods that could handle Greek letters became available.

Megacycles per second (Mc) – currently called Megahertz (MHz) in the SI system. You would frequently see radio dials of the 1940s and 1950s marked with the Mc and Kc (see Kilocycles) nomenclature.

Kilocycles per second (Kc) – currently called Kilohertz (KHz) in the SI system.

Multivibrator – is the old name for a cross-coupled amplifier pair made from two vacuum tubes or two transistors. There were astable multivibrators (oscillators), monostable multivibrators (one-shots), and bistable multivibrators (flip-flops). These days, “flip-flop” seems to have been shortened to “flop,” as in “there are a couple of billion flops on that IC.”

Single-shot – is an older term for a one-shot multivibrator.

Thyristor – is a 4-layer semiconductor switching device, usually used to handle high-power current switching. General Electric used the trade name “silicon-controlled rectifier” instead of thyristor, and the abbreviation “SCR” came to dominate in general usage. These days, “bidirectional thyristors” are called triacs, commonly found in light dimmers and other ac power-control circuits.

Bar – was the term Texas Instruments and some other early semiconductor makers used instead of “semiconductor die” or “chip.”

Dih (or Dit) and Dah – is an older term for Morse code’s dots and dashes, not to be confused with “Doo-Dah,” which is the song that the Camptown ladies sing in Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races.”

Rectifier – is an older term for diode. I remember large, finned selenium rectifiers used in tube radios. These were never called selenium diodes, as far as I can remember. The selenium rectifier was invented in 1933, and it was the first solid-state rectifier to be sold on the market. As soon as silicon power diodes appeared, selenium rectifiers disappeared. You could always tell when a selenium rectifier had failed, because of its unique odor, which could be sickly sweet at first and then would transform into the smell of rotten fish when the failure became catastrophic.

 

Federal brand selenium rectifier. Image credit: Binarysequence, Wikipedia

Return – is an old name for ground.

RTL – once meant “resistor-transistor logic,” back in the 1960s. As of the 1980s, it now stands for “register transfer level” and appears in discussions of hardware description languages (HDLs).

Solid State Lamp (SSL) – an archaic term for LED.

Vacuum tube Voltmeter (VTVM) – was an electronic version of a volt-ohm-meter (VOM, now called a multimeter), which used vacuum tubes to amplify signals and provided the readout on a moving-coil meter. In the 1960s, VTVMs evolved into FET VOMs, which replaced the vacuum tubes with FETs but kept the moving-coil meter. I won a VTVM in a high school science fair and built a couple of Heathkit FET VOMs (the IM-25 and IM-17) during the late 1960s. Today, we use digital multimeters (DMMs), which dispense with the expensive and fragile moving-coil meter in favor of more rugged digital displays driven by A/D converters. I’ve got older DMMs from Fluke and Keithley and a box full of “free” DMMs from Harbor Freight. Today’s DMMs are equally likely to come from a long list of creatively named vendors who did not exist a few decades ago.

 

Heathkit IM-25 FET VOM, circa 1969. Image credit: Heathkit

I’m certain that this is not an exhaustive list of old electronics terms. Perhaps you know more archaic electronics terms. If so, please leave them in the comments below.

13 thoughts on “Old Electronics Terms Show Language Drift Over the Decades”

  1. Great column Steve — I’m familiar with all of these terms (seeing one in a column wouldn’t give me pause for thought) except for the micro-micro-farad and milli-micro-farad — I’d not run across those before.

  2. Pretty sure these are still used—in some circles at least 🙂

    Nybble: Well, it was never much used even back in the day, so I think it’s still used to a similar degree when necessary…
    Coil, Choke: Surely still used…???
    Octal: Yeah, less used these days…perhaps not at all, ‘cept by aging PDP-11 etc programmers???
    Flops: Part of me likes the enshortening, the other part rebels against such laziness. And is it a “J-K Flop”?
    Rectifier: Last I heard this is still au courant for power parts. Ask Electroboom: FULL-BRIDGE RECTIFIER.

    What really rubs me the wrong way is the repurposing of valid existing terms, e.g.,

    De-emphasis: Has always meant reducing high frequencies at the Rx end, but I’ve seen it used WRONGLY in high speed serial links to refer to reducing lower Tx frequencies. I mean, sure, it’s correct in some sense (de-emphasing lower frequencies), but goes against existing usage. It should be called pre-emphasis.

    Waterfall display: A spectrogram is NOT a waterfall display. Use the correct existing term. Waterfall is largely obsolete: a multi-graph display with hidden lines.

    All I can think of right now… :-}

  3. FLOPs are also Floating Point Operations – well, petaflops nowadays!
    Worst crime of all is one programming language borrowing a term from another language, but having it do something entirely different! Python especially, half your prior knowledge is trashed, and you spend all your time reading the docs for these redefinitions!

    1. Thanks fpgareader. “Floating Point Operations Per Second” is abbreviated as FLOPS (all caps), although it often appears incorrectly in many articles. I’m interesting in finding out which overloaded programming terms you refer to in your message. I stopped learning programming languages at C, so Python, Rust, etc are merely conceptual for me.

  4. This was a fun article!

    Couple of notes:

    1. Like the early American pioneers, in Quebec the language spoken today is somewhat close to the way French was pronounced in the 16th century, when the first settlers came to Quebec. This is because French in France continued to evolve while Quebec, in isolation, retained the old manner of speaking.

    2. I’m very curious to know when the SI units came in, replacing — for example — cycles per second with Hz, and when all the other eponymous units came on board, viz. Farad, Volt, Amp, &c.

    — Dag

  5. Thanks everyone for stopping by. My electronics career started as an experimenter in High School at the end of the 1960s. I designed electronic systems as a career until 1985. In all that time, I never recall hearing about nanofarad capacitors. We had only picofarad and microfarad capacitors. I do recall reading about milli-microfarad capacitors in the electronics hobby magazines in the 1960s, but never after that. Similarly, I remember hearing about megacycles in the 1960s, especially for civil defense radios and frequencies, but never after that. The 1960s were years of massive changes for the electronics industry with the introduction of ICs, pc boards, and RTL/DTL/TTL/ECL logic chips. In the late 1960s, the nexus of the electronic experimenter’s world was Poly Paks, where you could buy surplus and rejected electronics parts at very reasonable prices. I bought a lot of parts from them. Mostly, they worked. Almost every town in the US also had at least one Radio Shack, where you could also buy parts and surplus IBM computer boards with a handful of salvageable components on each one. I reclaimed many parts from those boards, and never used them because they were never the right value.

  6. C.P.S. Cycles per Second. My late former colleague James C. Krieg suggested that the SI unit of frequency should have been named after Charles Proteus Steinmetz, who invented three-phase AC electric power and hence three-wire high-tension power lines. Tesla’s older two-phase AC power needed four wires.

    I have witnessed inductors and transformers disappear from analog designs other that power supplies. My obsolete-technology experience led me in the 1990s to build a bandpass instrumentation amplifier by using an RLC series-tuned circuit for the gain-setting resistor. I had to put a copper pipe cap over the coil to block stray signal pickup.

    I started building crystal and vacuum-tube radios at home during my elementary-school years in the late 1950s. I went through college and grad school 1966-1973 in physics rather than EE. I already knew the old technology. The microcomputer and mouse and Unix architecture-independent operating-system revolutions were gestating or just born, so were then too new for academia. I spent my career with small companies working on technology that was simultaneously too old and too new and too obscure for academic study. This let me create interdisciplinary designs, as the analog-to-digital converter in a radio receiver moved from between the listener’s ears when I began to the antenna in the 1990s.

  7. I remember being frustrated that Radio Shack and other hobbyist-oriented distributors didn’t stock new leading edge parts, while industrial distributors did stock leading-edge parts (many of which were cheap), but required an open account to place an order. Gerber Electronics allowed me to order leading-edge industrial parts by including a personal check with my mail order. The advent of websites accepting credit cards permitted me to order from industrial suppliers.

  8. VCT rating on a transformer secondary meant “volts center tapped”, the voltage across the whole winding. The winding has a tap (third lead) at the center of the winding. A 6.3 VCT transformer was intended to have 6.3-volt vacuum-tube heaters connected across the ends of the winding. The center tap was grounded so the equal-amplitude voltages and currents on the two heater leads would be opposite phase to cancel AC hum pickup.

    1. You made me grin, traneusee. I’ve always used center-tapped transformers to build symmetric + and – power supplies, mostly with 24 VCT transformers, but I’m sure you’ve described the original intended use. I was born too late to worry about gaseous FET heaters.

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