Beam Me Up

Mostly when people send me examples of how things have changed since the bad old days when we were young, annoyance creeps up on me like arthritis. I never thought that popular culture in 1975 would remain as it was forever, nor am I oblivious to every cultural reference made by my students. My reaction to “The Mindset List” for the Class of 2016 was no different—boredom alloyed by irritation at examples like No. 34, “Billy Graham is as familiar to them as Otto Graham was to their parents.” Who the hell is Otto Graham, and where were the current parents of 18-year-olds when Billy Graham was praying with Richard Nixon? Hello?

But No. 27, “Outdated icons with images of floppy discs for ‘save,’ a telephone for ‘phone,’ and a snail mail envelope for ‘mail’ have oddly decorated [current students’] tablets and smartphone screens,” finally got me tracking down an etymology that has bothered me for years. I refer to “wi-fi,” the common abbreviation for wireless networking. Its origin at first seems obvious—it rhymes with “hi-fi,” the former abbreviation for an up-to-date record player (take that, you mind-set people), and thus connotes the latest technological wizardry. But wait a sec. “Hi-fi” stands for “high fidelity,” or the higher quality reproduction of sound made possible by better equipment. “Wireless fidelity” doesn’t make sense. It’s not simply that we’re unsure of what sort of faithfulness is being invoked. “Hi-fi” is a measure of quality; even when we made it a noun by referring to the record-playing console as “the hi-fi,” we implied a qualitative difference between that piece of equipment and the Olympic record player that my brother passed on to me when he left for college. “Wi-fi” designates only the fact that the signal is received wirelessly; it boasts of nothing in regard to quality.

Such a search for back-etymology hits a dead end because despite what Wiktionary will tell you, “wi-fi” was never coined as a variation on “hi-fi.” It was invented as a brand name by a company called Interbrand in 1999 when they felt that “IEEE 802.11b Direct Sequence” lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. Technically, I suppose, we should be capitalizing it and refusing to eliminate the hyphen. At the same time, knowing the true origin of the word liberates us to join those (found, yes, primarily among our new undergraduates) who delight in pronouncing the nonhyphenated word to rhyme with “spiffy.” Moreover, since “wi-fi” refers to wireless technology, we might also content ourselves with referring to it simply as “wireless.” Although FREE WIRELESS on a coffee shop window may not have the cachet of FREE WIFI, it has the advantage of harking back to the earlier use of “wireless” to refer to the radio. That might confuse those doddering parents who know Otto but not Billy Graham, but for most of us, the distinction between the two usages is no more confusing than the distinction between the 19th-century human “computer” who calculated things for his employer and the silicon-chip “computer” that accesses the internet.

Or I could let it go, this false etymology, to take its place among other reasonable-sounding but wildly incorrect assumptions, like the one claiming “crap” alludes to the English plumber Thomas Crapper. After all, as the Mindset List informs us at No. 60, “History has always had its own channel.” No need to tune in constantly.

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