Telorama, telephany, telopsy – or television?

13th November 2012

I am researching early television in the 1930s and have come across a rather engaging discussion in the Letters column of The Times. This took place at a time when the very idea of ‘television’ was being formed – as indeed, as we can see, was the word itself. On 26 March 1934 Revd. G E Nicholls of Clevedon kicked things off with this thought:

May I suggest the unsuitability of the word “television” that it is half Greek and half Latin? May I suggest telorama?

(This classical allusion is often ascribed to legendary Guardian editor C P Scott, in the quote, ‘Television? The word is half Greek and half Latin. No good will come of it.’)

Readers of The Times, and especially those with a classical education – of which there were rather more then than now – loved such a challenge…

On 28 March Dr Ernest Gardner of University College, London, replied:

If a non-hybrid word for “television” is required, why not use telephany?

 A few says later, on 4 April, Mr J C Wilson of North Harrow in Middlesex brought some historical context to the exchange:

Mr Perskyi in 1900… was the first to coalesce the roots to form the word télévision. 1n 1911, apparently without knowledge of this word, an examiner in H M Patent Office in forming a search-file devoted to this subject as a branch of copying telegraphy reinvented it in its Anglicized form. At the time the Examiner felt guilty, but euphony prevailed and the previous horrid hybrid “telescopy” silently died.

(Euphony: pleasing or sweet sound; especially : the acoustic effect produced by words so formed or combined as to please the ear; courtesy online Merriam-Webster Dictionary.)

Not that discussion stopped with this. The next day, Mr W Proctor Wilson of SW2 wrote

The hybrid word “television” is an intellectual affront. On etymological grounds, however, the Greek compound word on strict principles of elision should be [and here I’m afraid my Greek fails me and I am unable to transfer the characters that Mr Wilson includes in his letter]. The Latin equivalent, “longevision,” would seem perhaps the best compromise.

 Undaunted, on 7 April, The Rev Basil P W French had this to offer:

May I suggest another alternative to the hybrid “television” – namely, “telopsy”? The form of the word would be on the analogy of the already existing “autopsy” and as conveying the meaning of seeing from afar, rather than that suggested by one of your correspondents of “telorama,” the thing seen from afar, would be preferable to it. The elision of the final e in tele objected to by another of your correspondents seems (according to the Greek Lexicon) to have some justification.

The debate rather dropped out of view for a while, until it was re-ignited by Sir John Risley thundering forth from The Atheneum on 5 February 1935:

Is “television” a barbarous Graeco-Latin jumble or is it simply the English word “vision” with the unashamed addition of a Greek prefix? In either case is it too late to protest before it passes irrevocably into the English language? … [O]n the analogy of telepathy, should not the new word be “telescopy”? Its correct accentuation on the second e (as in “telepathy”) would help to distinguish it from telescope.

On 16 February, the correspondent “E D R” shifted the terms of the discussion:

No good single word was ever found for the radio or wireless set. Many suggestions have been made for the name of the wireless television set, but I have not noticed among them “aeroscope”.

But it was not to be and we have of course lived with the “intellectual affront” ever since.

Image: detail of a GEC Television advertisement in Radio Times Television Supplement, 8 January 1937.


  1. Helene says:

    I did find the post interesting, as well, John. I wonder what G.E. Nicholls et al would think when after all of their long- and well-thought-out monikers compressed down to simply “TV” and “telly.”

  2. craig melson says:

    Television is an excellent word of choice. Vision (from video 4th decl.) is obvious why chosen and Tele meaning ‘far’ being appropriate.Also, Tele was widely used for another newish mediums so they latched on to it.

    I like hybridising the new words-, new medium, new rules. If only facebook did it more appropriately,

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