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Electronics Lingo & Slang

The electronics industry, as a subset of human society, has within it many of the same characteristics as the non-technical world. One of these is the loose use of language when it is convenient and when the speaker also desires to add to the cognitive content a splash of color to what is being said. What follows is a short list of electronics lingo and slang – perhaps the beginning of a glossary.

Computer hackers, especially those whose culture was emanating from the MIT Artificial Intelligence (AI) Lab in the 1960s and ‘70s, already had an entire book devoted to computerese. The Hacker’s Dictionary (Harper & Row, 1983) was written (or compiled) by 6 people, including at least two that I recognize as from the MIT AI Lab: Guy Steele, who worked on the “frame problem” of robotics among other AI topics, and Richard Stallman, who is famous for leading the promotion of open software, and who is a – if not the – prodigious code writer of our time. The book is a refined version of the same glossary that floated around on the ARPAnet in the form of a large file in the 1970s.

If you have been in electronics a long time, see how much of this jargon or pseudo-words you recognize. And if you are new to electronics, hopefully the list will help you to better understand what the solicitors of slang are saying!

amp

1. Short for ampere , the unit of current.

2. Short for amplifier . To distinguish from 1, sometimes abbreviated as “ampl”.

attenuwasters

Attenuators, with emphasis on their loss of waveform amplitude.

“The wasters need to have both ×2 and ×5 steps between decades.” (attributed to Wayne Kelsoe and-or Cal Diller in the portable ‘scopes group of Tektronix in the 1970s)

automagically

A word borrowed from MIT computer hackers as a variant of automatically to signal the skipping of detail in order to expedite a causal explanation.

“Then the ‘scope re-triggers automagically after sufficient retrace time.”

box

Enclosure of an electronic device, usually of plastic or metallic packaging. The one-syllable word usually says enough, though “enclosure” sounds more technically ornate.

“I put the high-frequency generator in its box and now it works!”

cap

Capacitor. An obsolete but non-slang word is condenser .

“Which size of cap do we need to bypass low-speed CMOS logic?”

coil

Inductor; usually used in the context of analog communications circuits instead of power electronics because radio inductors are often made as coils of wire.

dc to daylight

Wideband, emphasizing the extremity of it. The expression dc , along with ac , should be slang – or better yet, dropped entirely from use – because of their nonsensical and ambiguous literal meanings. Is a “dc voltage” or direct-current voltage a voltage or a current? And what is so “direct” about it? Furthermore, does dc mean constant or unipolar ? Does ac mean varying or bipolar ? And must it too be a current? Better expressions that are finally gaining widespread use are: static or unipolar for dc , and varying or bipolar for ac , and they can be applied to voltage, current, power, or other quantities without ambiguity. Additionally, “low-frequency ac”, another awkward expression about what happens at 0+ Hz, is best dropped in favor of a word the thermodynamicists have gotten right from the start: quasistatic .

electron guidance counselor

Electronics engineer. A variation in title once spotted at Tektronix under someone’s nameplate was “Doctor of Electricity”.

electroniker

A person involved in electronics. The Russian or German slant in spelling is reminiscent of another slang word from the computer industry: VAXen , more than one DEC VAX computer, using German pluralization.

epi layer

Epitaxial layer of an integrated circuit.

“The epi layer is implanted with a p-well in CMOS.”

floating instrument – 3rd wire cut

Disconnection of the safety ground from an instrument such as a ‘scope that allows it to be floated relative to grounded circuitry to be probed. This practice is sometimes unavoidable and engineers should be competent enough to do it safely – but be alert to safety when you do it, all the same! And sometimes it is safer to not provide a high-current return path through ground.

flop

Flip-flop, a word for “bistable multivibrator” that might well have started as slang and with widespread use made it into the accepted mainstream electronics lexicon.

fried

Failure of a component because of overtemperature.

“I fried the output transistor before I increased the value of the current-limit sense resistor.”

gassed up

Biased; usually biasing of a BJT transistor.

“This transistor has acceptable fT when gassed up to about ten milliamps .” (attributed to Bruce Hofer)

ghosts

Spurious images seen on a television caused by multi-path signal reception.

“If you rotate the antenna you can get rid of those ghosts .”

gimmick

A cap of small value used for circuit trimming, made by twisting two insulated wires together, stripping the pair on one end and soldering them into the circuit, then successively cutting the length to give the desired capacitive trim.

glitch

1. Runt pulse: a pulse lacking either valid logic level, caused by transition-time limitations of the logic circuitry.

2. A spurious pulse of short duration.

“All my digital logic designs are glitch -free!”

gremlin

A fictitious device in a circuit introduced to simplify its explanation.

In the Amplifier Frequency and Transient Response (AFTR) course that was taught by Carl Battjes at Tektronix, he introduced a gremlin to facilitate explanation of how T-coils increased circuit speed in vertical amplifiers.

green worm

Oscilloscope trace of green color on the face of a jug .

“Ah, the CRT circuit is finally working! I’m seeing a green worm.”

ground bounce

Noise at a ground node with respect to another ground node.

“This ECL logic is causing excessive ground bounce because the board lacks a ground-plane layer.”

headroom

Dynamic range margin, such as the voltage margin between the supply voltages and the input or output range extremes of an amplifier.

“The output is distorted at the peaks because the op-amp needs excessive headroom .”

hook

Change in dielectric constant and hence capacitance with frequency.

“This fiberglass circuit-board has excessive hook above 100 megahertz.”

jug

Cathode-ray tube (CRT), especially those having the conical shape of a jug.

From a 1960s manager in Tektronix‘scope manufacturing, final test and calibration, to a test technician:

“If that green worm on your jug gets to you, we can swap it out for a jug with a purple worm instead.”

kludge

Hastily or haphazardly constructed prototype, or such activity.

“Jim kludged together a new zoo circuit, and the front cover of his book shows multiple kludges on his bench.”

long-tail

Synthesis of a current source from a voltage source in series with a large-value resistor.

“The BJT-pair diff-amp emitter current is returned by a long-tail to the –12 V supply.”

loose spec

Undemanding specification, sometimes leading to an effort to tighten the spec .

“This new function generator from FBN Electronics sure has a loose spec on sine distortion.” Note: FBN Electronics – Fly By Night Electronics – is metaphorically still in business!

micromicro

Obsolete rendering of pico; also, micromilli for nano. There is still somewhat of an aversion among some electronikers to use the unit of nanofarad, nF.

“I found some really old circuit diagrams and some of the caps are marked μμ F.”

persuasion

Polarity.

“This output stage requires an NPN for the positive drive and a transistor of the opposite persuasion for the negative drive.” (attribted to Wayne Kelsoe)

pot

1. Short for potentiometer .

2. Short for electric potential , or voltage, in “high-pot” testing. The full rendition is “high potential” though one might well get to the point by merely saying “high voltage”. If enough of us do, this silly high-pot slang will fade out.

puff

Picofarad (pF)

“The op-amp needs a 10 puff cap across the feedback resistor to stabilize it.”

radio

Wireless. Radio is not slang – or is it? It has a well-established usage in American electronics and can also be found among the British, though wireless has historically been used more in Britain. Now, wireless seems to have become the preferred word in America. Is radio heading toward obsolescence?

rails

Power supply nodes of a powered device, usually extended on circuit-boards as straight, parallel, closely-spaced traces resembling railroad rails.

“This op-amp can tolerate only as much as 12 V across its rails before it fries .”

rheostat

Variable resistor, made by shorting one end of a pot to the wiper terminal. This word is not slang but is quickly becoming obsolete.

schematic

Circuit diagram – or is this another adjective (like chiropractic ) made into the noun that should have been instead (like chiropraxis )? The noun form of schematic is schema , a Latinized plural which might better be rendered schemes . Collectively, they are a circuit scheme ; “Show me the circuit scheme for this unit.” Somehow, “circuit diagram”, though having 4 additional syllables, seems more descriptive than “circuit scheme”.

'scope

Oscilloscope. In medical electronics, “scopes” are different and there are multiple kinds of them. In electronics, ‘scope is also used to refer to its functional successor, the digital storage oscilloscope (DSO) and thus has a narrow (definitive) range of meanings. A possible exception is the vectorscope, a specialized derivative of the oscilloscope for observing the quality of video signals.

“Shall we buy a ‘scope from Tek, Agilent, LeCroy, or Rigol?”

speed

The quickness with which a circuit responds dynamically, as quantified by its risetime, bandwidth, or delay.

spudger

An adjustment tool of variable capacitors or inductors that is nonmetallic and nonconducting so that it will not influence the adjusted value. Spudgers are usually made of plastic and thus have a permeability close to that of air.

thermals

Dynamic thermal effects in circuit behavior caused by changes in power dissipation in components with waveform voltage or current changes.

“What looks like an RC time constant on this step response is actually a thermal.”

tube or vacuum tube

Electron tube (American, RCA) or thermionic valve (British). Once again, the British have more thoughtfully named the device as descriptive of its function rather than with a general, nondescript word like tube . Another example? The British call the flashlight , which does not really flash in most applications, the electric torch , which both describes its electrical operation and its portability as a light source (torch).

“The All-American-Five radio design uses five tubes .”

snivet

A short burst of spurious oscillatory circuit behavior.

“A snivet appears on the output waveform when it crosses zero.”

squegging

Spurious frequency modulation in an oscillator caused by noise or instability.

“The high-voltage supply is squegging in this ‘scope , causing the intensity and focus to vary.”

This brief look at electronics lingo reminds us that the language we use to communicate is dynamic, sometimes oxymoronic (though established), and often imaginative. Established words and slang compete over time for our acceptance as we seek the best ways of expressing our thoughts, ever in search of a simpler, clearer, or more powerful means for conveying an idea or concept.

As a post-note on language deconstruction, misuse of the word issue as a euphemism for problem is rampant, when what is referred to is simply a problem without controversy. This controverted use of issue is an issue for me. Do you have any electronics slang to add to this list, or any pernicious language peeves? Any issues with words?

9 comments on “Electronics Lingo & Slang

  1. clayga
    November 16, 2016

    For reference, no-one in the UK calls a radio a “wireless” these days except in drama or mock-throwback to the 1940's.

    Other slang would include “interweb” as somewhat self-disparaging or passive-aggressive designation for the WWW.

    Lastly, all good Program Manager types know that “we have an issue”, never a problem – it's too much like admitting guilt!

  2. jonharris0
    November 16, 2016

    Enjoyed reading this.  Several I use or have heard others I haven't heard before.  I've now seen high speed ADCs drawing over an 'amp' of current off of the 'DC' supply 'rails' where we have lots of 'caps' for decoupling.  With so much current draw there is definitely a concern for the 'thermals.' We recommend use a good R&S 'box' with low phase noise to drive the clock and analog inputs.  We have a soft reset that hit the 'flops' in the 'glitch' free digital inside the ADC digital section. We advise good layout to avoid any type of 'ground bounce' from other circuitry nearby the ADC from creating issues with noise or 'spurs' in the FFT.  Also we sometimes have to 'kludge' together some things in the lab to duplicate a customer's application based on just a 'snivet' of info.  And sometimes we need to get a 'scope' and 'poke around' on the board to troubleshoot.  Ahh, that was fun!  Last one I might add that I don't enjoy hearing is the use of 'low hanging fruit' which I think is way overused jargon, but I digress.  Thanks again, enjoyed this!

  3. David_Ashton_EC
    November 16, 2016

    And when you've got all your caps and coils and whatnot together, you “Fire it up” like an old steam locomotive.

    Tubes/valves used to be “bottles” and transistors are “trannies” though this can be confusing in this day and age, not least as it's also used for transformers…..  I've also heard “triffids” used (from John Wyndham's book).

    Not directly related to components, but if things go wrong you'll “let the magic smoke out” in which case you may have to RTFM (Read The Flamin' Manual” though there are other interpretations.

  4. Steve Taranovich
    November 17, 2016

    In the early 80s I was designing a high speed amplifier chain with NE5539 amplifiers. What a beast that was to tame! Signetics introduced it in 1979 and it had a Gain Bandwidth (GBW) product of 1.2 GHz which was pretty incredible at the time. I remember that Signetics said it had a frequency response from “DC to daylight”. The caveat to using this smoking fast video amp was that it was inherently unstable and required some creative stability circuitry which included some pretty tiny capacitance in the single-digit pF area.

    My engineering manager introduced me to the 'gimmick'. He told me to solder two small insulated wires across the feedback resistor, then twist them until the oscillation was dampened of disappeared. I never learned that in engineering school!

    Brings back memories.

  5. D Feucht
    November 17, 2016

    Steve,
    Circa the early 1980s, I ventured to use the NE5539 op-amp in an instrument prototype. It is quite appealing on the paper datasheet, though it has too many poles too close to each other, as I also found out!

    I still like the idea of the part, though. It has some circuit features that can possibly be stepping-stones to the next amplifier circuit breakthrough, such as CFAs became – except something else.

     

    “DC to daylight” was an expression that came from the oscilloscope vertical amplifier designers at Tektronix. The 7104 1 GHz analog scope was the acme of that achievement.

  6. Andy_I
    November 18, 2016

    Wouldn't “bug” qualify?  I see it used almost as much today for hardware “mistakes”, as for software.

    “Smoke test” is another slang term in frequent use, but maybe it is less slang and more realistic.  Related to “letting the magic smoke out” (which I first heard much later).

  7. Steve Taranovich
    November 18, 2016

    @D Feucht–excellent information–thanks

  8. D Feucht
    November 18, 2016

    Thanks for your two additions to the dictionary of electronics slang. Actually, “bug” started as a hardware slang word. It referred to the insects that degraded telephone lines in the early days. Its use by software people picked up from its hardware use.

    Smoke test should be in the list too. And yes, maybe it is not really slang – not in power electronics!

  9. Victor Lorenzo
    November 29, 2016

    Hi Dennis, interesting post, thanks.

    Probably the most widely spread meaning for “bug” makes reference to software errors but it also refers to hidden listeing devices.

    This photo here (from wikipedia commons) is very representative:

     

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