Etymology: Audio – Where did the word come from?
I sometimes find myself wondering why things are called what they are. Take ‘blog’ for instance. You could have a good guess that the word started out as some sort of ‘log’ or diary for something. But why the ‘b’ at the start?
And the word ‘write’: does its history perhaps explain why there’s a silent ‘w’ at the start? (I think any dyslexic or poor speller deserves to have this justified!)
These sorts of things don’t keep me up at night (I’m sure you’ll be glad to know), but they do pique my curiosity; and recently I was musing on why I produce ‘audio’. Not why I actually produce it of course – production is great fun and can be very rewarding – but how it came to be called ‘audio’.
noun ‘audio’ – sound or sound signal, especially recorded or transmitted;
adjective ‘audio’ – of or relating to an audible sound or to the broadcasting or reproduction of sound.
The route of the word ‘audio’ comes from the Latin stem audīre which means ‘to hear’. This is perhaps what you might consider to be a fairly normal beginning of a word. But it doesn’t explain well enough for me why it turned into ‘audio’.
To take it back even further, the au– at the start means ‘to perceive’ in Latin, thought to be equivalent to the ancient Greek ‘to feel’. I quite like the idea of feeling audio, as I think sometimes we underestimate the power of audio in our day-to-day lives.
As with many words, knowing the exact moment that ‘audio’ was coined is tricky. We do know, however, that ‘audio’ began its use not as a word of its own, but as a prefix. The first use in this way was in 1913. The word ‘audio-frequency’ then appeared in 1919.
Here it’s interesting to see that ‘audio’ seems to go hand in hand with technology, and that the spread of its use came seemingly from a need to describe new things in science and broadcasting.
The early 1920s continued the word’s scientific trend, and gave rise to the words ‘audiology’ – the study of hearing, and ‘audiometer’ – a machine used to measure sound within the human hearing range.
It wasn’t until 1934 that ‘audio’ was abstracted from the prefix, and became a word of its own.
Today, being a noun, an adjective, and a prefix, the word ‘audio’ crops up often. I’m perhaps a little biased, but I think one of the best uses is in the word ‘audiobook’ (which, for those of you wondering, came into use during the 1970s when audiocassettes began to replace records).
And don’t worry; I’m not going to leave you in suspense any longer about the questions which opened this post:
The ‘b’ in ‘blog’ comes from the 1997 idea of Jorn Barger for a weblog. This caught on, and was jokingly modified in 1999 on Peter Merholz’s online journal into the two words ‘We Blog’. The word ‘blog’ was then readily adopted as both noun and a verb.
As for the silent ‘w’ in ‘write’, this was actually pronounced up until the 17th Century. The word itself is of Germanic origin, and the Anglo-Saxons, for example, would have vocalised that ‘w’. Why it still hangs around today is a question of language development, and seems to relate to our strange love of preserving words, despite pronunciation changes, even if their spellings are rather antiquated.
In some ways this etymology portrays humans brilliantly as the creatures of habit that we are, whilst demonstrating how we continue to develop and change.
I hope this post has brought you some interesting answers to questions you perhaps never knew you had! And I’d love to hear if it gets you thinking about the origins of any other words!
Written by Holly Newson. Holly is Audio Producer at Listening Books.
This post is available in audio format via the player at the top of the post.