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Action at a distance

The prefix tele– is currently one of the most fertile in forming new compounds. For most of the 400 years or so in which it has existed in the language, its sense has been that of the original Greek tele–, “at a distance”. But from about the middle of this century it started to developed a number of subtly different new senses as its usage has explosively increased.

It first appeared in English in the word telescope. This was a usage adapted from Galileo’s Italian word telescopi for his new device, which he seems to have first used in 1611; two years later, Kepler employed the modern Latin telescopium. Galileo and Kepler apparently tried out a series of other names before settling on telescope, including perspicillum, conspicillum, specillum, and penicillium; if they had decided to use one of the others, it is very possible that we should now not have all these words starting in tele–.

The next word came about through the need to communicate more quickly over a distance than by sending messengers on horseback. Inventors in France and England at the end of the eighteenth century independently worked out a technique involving lines of towers, each in sight of the next, bearing moveable sails or flaps that operators used to pass messages in code successively down the chain. Though we would now name such devices semaphores, they were called telegraphs at the time (1794), meaning “writing at a distance”. The British Admiralty had a telegraph connecting London with its main naval base at Portsmouth, one of whose towers survives and has become a museum. Napoleon relied on a similar system to co-ordinate his military efforts to drive the Austrians out of Bavaria and to relay information on the movements of the British fleet from the Channel ports to Paris.

Not long after the construction of these telegraph chains the new science of electricity made it possible to transmit information between two places by means of wires. This new device was at first called the electric telegraph and it was only when it had been perfected and had rendered the old mechanical version obsolete that the first word was dropped and telegraph came to mean only an electrical device.

The next such word was telephone. Though the modern device was invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1873, he did not invent the word for it. It had been in use for more than half a century for various devices that communicated sound over a distance, including a method of signalling using musical notes, a kind of foghorn and an improved speaking tube. The influence of these existing usages was such that at first Bell’s invention was called the electrical speaking telephone, though this unwieldy phrase was quickly abbreviated and the new sense usurped the older ones.

A number of related words were generated in the next fifty years or so, including telemetry (obtaining measurements from a distance), and Teletype, teletyper, teletypewriter, and telex, all of them words for ways to send the written word over telephone lines. The term telecommunications was coined as a generic term in 1932 to include all means of communicating over a distance, whether electrically or not, a definition that became obsolete almost as soon as the word was coined, because tele– by then had taken on the overtones it retains as “communication over a distance by electrical means”.

One of the defining terms of the twentieth century, television, was first used in 1908, long before the first public television service was started by the BBC in 1936. Indeed, a British society devoted to its engineering and promotion, the Television Society (now the Royal Television Society), was established by John Logie Baird as early as 1928. By this time the term was well established, despite the comment attributed to C P Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian: “Television. No good will come of this device. The word is half Greek and half Latin”. But this linguistic mongrel has gone on to become a central part of daily life — often being shortened to telly in Britain — and the prefix tele– took on a specific sub-sense of “relating to television”, creating telecast, telecine, telegenic, telemovie, teleprompter, telepundit, telerecording, telethon, televangelist, teletext, and televiewer, among others.

As an aside, telethon is one of those odd blends in which two combining forms, prefix and suffix, have been borrowed from separate words and jammed together, extinguishing any root word. Another example is multiplex.

That word televiewer, though it sounds a little old fashioned, still turns up from time to time in reference to a person who watches television. However, in science fiction it has frequently referred to the viewing apparatus itself. A small group of expressions in tele– relating to extra-sensory perception or psi are particularly common in SF, and which return to the basic sense of action at a distance. One is teleportation, which was invented by Charles Fort in 1931 to refer to the movement of objects over a distance by the power of mind alone, but whose sense then shifted to the idea of moving oneself from place to place, and later still to technology that moved people about by some non-physical means. In this sense it became a common SF term, almost a cliché, though in its definitive incarnation, in that strange technology in Star Trek that enabled people to be instantaneously transported without needing anything so mundane as equipment at both ends, it is instead called a transporter. The original sense of moving objects by the power of the mind was taken up by telekinesis, which itself began to be used in SF in the early fifties. Though telepathy, “the direct perception of thoughts between minds”, belongs in the same set as these other two, it predates modern SF, having been invented back in the 1880s, but was later taken up to became a staple plot device.

Several compounds in tele– were created in the 1960s to reflect the increasing use of telecommunications for various purposes. Examples are telesales and telemarketing. Originally both referred to the marketing of goods or services through unsolicited telephone calls, though the former is now commonly used for a service that takes and processes orders received by telephone. Another was teleoperation, now taken to mean the operation of equipment at a distance, but which was coined in the mid 1960s, in its variant form teleoperator, in reference to the equipment being controlled in this way (more recently, the latter word has shifted sense to mean the person doing the controlling). In the early 1980s, the term telepresence was coined to refer to the use of remote control and the feedback of sensory information to produce the impression of being in another place, an idea which is now part of virtual reality. More recently, teleimmersion has been coined to identify a type of shared virtual reality environment in which workers physically remote can co-operate through telecommunications as though they were all in the same place; the wired area which permit this to take place are sometimes called telecubicles.

The most common usage of tele– at the moment as a word-forming device dates only from the seventies, roughly coincident with the introduction of the term telematics, “the long-distance transmission of computerised information”. The growth of electronics and communication mediated by computers has given rise to great numbers of coinages, many of them fleeting, all seeking to describe the adaptation of such techniques to some aspect of daily life. Examples include teleshopping, telebanking, telebroking and even telebetting (all activities carried out from home using a computer and telephone). Many of these are examples of telebusiness.

A particularly significant group of such words covers the various aspects of using computers and telecommunications to work at home instead of at the office. Originally a futuristic idea in which teleworkers would be able to telecommute (connect to their offices electronically instead of physically moving themselves there), it has become a reality for many people. Workers may “meet” and discuss issues through teleconferences. It was quickly recognised that there were economies of scale and other advantages in having communal facilities which could be shared by a number of teleworkers, especially in rural places where assistance and services were not easy to come by; these locations have usually been called telecottages (though a scheme in Scotland, perhaps inevitably, came to be known as a telecroft). Sometimes they are are called telecentres, though this word is also used more generally for any location in which business is conducted by telephone. A residential and business area designed and built to enable people to telecommute is sometimes called a televillage.

Telemedicine is the application of telecommunications to medicine, so allowing consultations and medical intervention to be carried out with the patient and doctor in different places. Experiments are being tried in many countries with remote consultations, sometimes called televisits or teleconsultations, and with remote control of surgical operations, telesurgery. It seems from the neologistic lexicon that most branches of medicine can now have a telecoms component, from teleradiology and telepathology to telenursing and telepsychiatry.

The possibilities of telecommunications to help learning at a distance have long been recognised. As the technology has advanced, new terms have arisen: televersity (a university run by distance learning methods over high-capacity data lines — one is proposed for the Scottish Highlands); telecourse (one so taught); telelearning, teleteaching and teleschooling (all with the idea of telecommunications helping distance learning); and teleseminar. The concept has been called tele-education.

This is just a selection from a long list. Galileo and Kepler never knew what they were starting ...

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 18 Jan. 1997
Last updated 7 Nov. 1998

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 7 November 1998.