Origin of Electrical Engineering Terms


This article was intially published in the December 2016 issue of IEEE-USA InSight

Electrical and computer engineering may be relatively young engineering disciplines, being little over two hundred years old, nonetheless much of the terminology they use stretches back millennia. Many terms have a complex and beautiful origin. “Engineer “ itself comes from Greek roots, geneton (of an origin or beginning) via the Latin ingenare, to generate or engender. Electron, electricity, and related words come from the Greek word for amber, electrum. The ancient Greeks noticed that amber, when rubbed, caused things to be attracted to it. Although they did not understand the phenomenon (another Greek word, meaning “to appear,” “to show”), of static electricity, the name of the material that manifested it developed into its modern meanings.

Antenna comes from the Latin word for the horizontal yardarm of a ship, antemna, as opposed to the vertical mast, which was arbor. In an early attempt to control the forces of electricity at sea, seal hide and hyena hide were the preferred materials for the leather reinforcements at the corners of ancient sails in the Mediterranean. Sailors believed that those materials had the property of preventing lightning from striking the ship. Ancient seafaring bequeathed us a number of modern engineering terms. Our measurement of work, “erg” comes from Greek ergon (work) and is given concrete form in the word for a winch, ergate. Cybernetics comes from the Greek word for the helmsman of a ship, kubernetes, a word which Latin borrowed to become gubernator from which our modern word governor derives.

Diode and triode come from the Greek for “two path” and “three path” respectively, while anode (the positive side of an electrochemical cell) comes from the related words for up path, and cathode from down path. Thyristor, a device for rectifying or controlling current, takes its name from Greek thyra (door). Magnet (Greek magnes lithos) literally means “stone of Magnesia.” Magnesia was a city in Asia Minor, on the banks of the Meander River, whose name is perpetuated in modern English in the word to wander or to have many bends. Presumably, lodestones (the mineral magnetite) were often found in that area. Their property of attracting iron was commented on by the philosopher Thales, who lived just downstream from Magnesia in Miletus (the modern city of Milet in Türkiye). Micro comes from the Greek mikros (small), while the frequently-used term, metadata, is a word combined from the Greek preposition meta (among, beyond, above) and the Latin datum (something given).

Hysteresis (from Greek hysterein, to be late, shortcoming), is the resistance of a material to being magnetized or demagnetized. Hysteresis plagued early DC and AC motors, as well as transformers. Building on work by James Alfred Ewing and Gisbert Kapp, Charles Steinmetz developed equations to calculate the effects of hysteresis and published them in December 1890.

Radio, radiation, and their cognate terms come from the Latin word for root, ratio. The radish in your salad is related etymologically to the mobile phone in your pocket.

Synergy, a quality that so many technologists seek, combines the word for “with” and the word for “work.”

Wire, despite its nature as an everyday, utilitarian material, has a rather beautiful origin for its name. It comes from the Greek iris (originally rainbow, later a flower), perhaps because strands of wire reminded someone of the bands of a rainbow

Indeed, the word “technology” itself comes from the words tekne (skill, or knowledge of how to do something) and logos (word). Thus language, the skill of using words, is the fundamental human technology, and the one upon which development of all the others depends.