The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Television’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

The editor of the Manchester Guardian (later to become The Guardian), C. P. Scott (1846-1932), was no fan of the word ‘television’. He famously commented: ‘Television? The word is half Latin and half Greek. No good can come of it.’

Scott was right about the etymology of the word. For the word ‘television’ comes from the ancient Greek τῆλε (i.e., tele) meaning ‘far’, and the Latin visio meaning ‘sight’. The word first appeared in August 1900, when the Russian scientist Constantin Perskyi used it in a paper given at a conference on electricity. However, Perskyi’s paper was given in French, and ‘television’ didn’t surface in English until seven years later.

However, when it was first used in the English language, in 1907, the technology of television was still theoretical. Back then, the word ‘television’ was still an idea for a system for transmitting moving images over telegraph, or even telephone, wires, rather than an actual invention that had been developed and that worked.

And indeed, there were other possible names proposed for the then-hypothetical technology for sending pictures over considerable distances. Alternative names which were suggested include telephote (as early as 1880) and televista (in 1904). But it was ‘television’ which won out. By 1929, three years after John Logie Baird had demonstrated the potential for television, the word ‘television’ was already being used to describe a television set, namely a device with a screen and an aerial which could receive transmitted moving images.

The abbreviation ‘TV’ for ‘television’ was first recorded in 1945, formed, as one can guess, from the letters in ‘TeleVision’. ‘Telly’, which is more common in Britain than elsewhere, came into use surprisingly early, in 1930. However, ‘telly’ in its earlier incarnation – as a colloquial abbreviation of ‘telegraph’ – dates back to 1796. When the novelist Maria Edgeworth used the word in a letter of 1796, the context made this clear:

He was afraid that the motion of the stage would have been too violent to agree with his model telegraph—‘his pretty, delicate little telly’, as Lovell calls it.

Surprisingly, the initialism CCTV, which stands for ‘closed-circuit television’ and is defined by the OED as ‘a surveillance and security system which provides remote observation of a limited (public) area by means of one or more cameras transmitting video signals to a monitor screen or screens’, has been in use since as early as 1958.

Purists like C. P. Scott may not have liked the word ‘television’, whose word combined ancient Greek and Latin elements. But if we’re to throw out ‘television’ on such grounds, we must also shun a number of other useful words, including ‘bigamy’, ‘genocide’, ‘petroleum’, ‘automobile’, and ‘homosexual’, all of which are also mongrel mouthfuls formed from a combination of Greek and Latin.