Wednesday 15 August 2012


What does wi-fi mean?

Come on, you ought to know. You almost certainly have wi-fi (unless you're reading this blog from some paleolithic dial-up system). So? Wi-fi?

Can you guess?

It means nothing at all. Or nearly nothing.

Hi-fi - that means something. It's a shortening of high fidelity, meaning that the sound produced is highly faithful to the original sound recorded. Hi-fi has existed since 1934. The Germans tried to standardise the meaning of the term hi-fi back in the sixties, but it didn't really catch on. It was just a general term of approval that then became interchangeable with cassette player because everybody claimed to be highly faithful.

Then in 1999 the inventors of the new IEEE 802.11b Direct Sequence went to a marketing firm called Interbrand to come up with a name that was "a little catchier". Interbrand decided that hi-fi was famous, tried and trusted and that if you changed the hi to wi (for wireless) you would have a tip-top brand name.

But... there's no fidelity involved at all. No sense of this being a more faithful connection to the router. Wireless fidelity would, if it meant anything at all, refer to a spouse who remained faithful even when not attached to electrodes. It's just a leftover term from a previous invention.

The new Wi-fi Alliance were rather awkward about this. They did, for a little while, try to refer to wireless fidelity, but it's such an utterly meaningless idea that the term was dropped and hasn't been seen since 2003. So, wi-fi does not mean wireless fidelity, it means hi-fi with one letter changed.


  1. I'm completely a descriptive (rather than prescriptive) language person. I totally get that language is fluid and ever-changing and all that, and I enjoy that new words are being coined all the time, and that some of them are wonderful (muffin-top, anyone?).
    But somehow it irks me a little that a branding company can make up a word and voila, it exists. That doesn't seem right.
    I might have to boycott it. That'll show 'em.

  2. There's a Chris Addison bit where he calls it "wireless fireless" which is at least a good description of a correctly configured router.

  3. Surely companies make up words all the time, which then exist. We hoover the carpet, and stick things with sellotape.And they were right,wi-fi is such a catchy term.

  4. I once wondered about this but decided there must be a good reason for the 'fidelity' which I just didn't know. Now there need be no inhibitions to my irritation!

    Aren't words like 'chocoholic' and 'shopaholic' a bit similar (the 'hol' being a left-over scrap of 'alcohol')?

  5. It's very similar to folk etymology as it appears that people don't consider the word's meaning but use an associated word to fabricate a suffix. It irritates me when I read of a "catnapping". I wonder does somebody think kidnapping is the napping (abduction) of children? I like to hear new words but I would be much happier if these illogical words were quickly forgotten. You'll never hear of me taking a staycation.

    1. But catnapping is a transformation of "cat-nap" into a gerund. It's a coincidence that it looks like the equivalent of kidnapping (which is not napping like a kid).

    2. I apologise for picking a bad example. I have come across the use of "catnapping" in the media to refer to the theft of cats. I hadn't thought of its distinct, original meaning, but I suppose that just makes the kidnapping use ever more inappropriate. A better example of what I meant would be dognapping, used exclusively (as far as I'm aware) in the sense of holding dogs to ransom.

  6. "napper" is an obsolete word for a thief. So cat and dog napping are not, as such, illogical words.

  7. I prefer to think of it as: Why (Wi) Fiddle (Fi) [with wires?]

    P.S. A wonderful blog. Maintain the great work.

  8. With apologies, I think this post is a rare misfire for you. What usually comes across from your book and this blog is the myriad ways in which words come into existence, and change develop their meanings, and how the actual meaning of a word (its current use) can have very little association with the original, etymological, origin. In this sense, your statement that "wi-fi does not mean wireless fidelity, it means hi-fi with one letter changed," and the implicit bemoaning of the branding exercise that created the word is not only a bit absurd (what wi-fi means is clear to all of us: it means a wireless internet connection) but counter to what I see as your usual celebration of the diversity and erraticism of lexcial histories.

    So what if a word was made up by a branding company? Should we really be surprised that people who specialize in making things catchy managed to, um, make something catchy?

    (; as per the chap above, this is a wonderful blog and my moment of disagreement will not stop me enjoying it!)

  9. I am so glad that I am plugged physically into my internet connection. I spent some years trying to get a connection by moving around in the room. Sometimes I couldn't get a signal despite being next to the modem.

  10. The WiFi standards include Forward Error Correction, to increase the chance of the transmitted data being recovered with perfect fidelity. So I think the "Fi' is justified.