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!
1. Short for ampere , the unit of current.
2. Short for amplifier . To distinguish from 1, sometimes abbreviated as “ampl”.
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)
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.”
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!”
Capacitor. An obsolete but non-slang word is condenser .
“Which size of cap do we need to bypass low-speed CMOS logic?”
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”.
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.
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.
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.
Failure of a component because of overtemperature.
“I fried the output transistor before I increased the value of the current-limit sense resistor.”
Biased; usually biasing of a BJT transistor.
“This transistor has acceptable fT when gassed up to about ten milliamps .” (attributed to Bruce Hofer)
Spurious images seen on a television caused by multi-path signal reception.
“If you rotate the antenna you can get rid of those ghosts .”
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.
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!”
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.
Oscilloscope trace of green color on the face of a jug .
“Ah, the CRT circuit is finally working! I’m seeing a green worm.”
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.”
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 .”
Change in dielectric constant and hence capacitance with frequency.
“This fiberglass circuit-board has excessive hook above 100 megahertz.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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!
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.”
“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)
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.
“The op-amp needs a 10 puff cap across the feedback resistor to stabilize it.”
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?
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 .”
Variable resistor, made by shorting one end of a pot to the wiper terminal. This word is not slang but is quickly becoming obsolete.
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”.
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?”
The quickness with which a circuit responds dynamically, as quantified by its risetime, bandwidth, or delay.
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.
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 .”
A short burst of spurious oscillatory circuit behavior.
“A snivet appears on the output waveform when it crosses zero.”
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?