What’s the sitch with walkie-talkies?

Breaker 1-9, what’s your 20? Lol. Walkie-talkies. 

Invented during the frenzy of desperate innovation during World War II, they began as phones attached to giant vacuum tubes. These were then strapped onto a poor grunt’s back so commanding officers could chat with their buddy back at the base. 

Fast-forward to 2015, where advances in technology allow walkie-talkies to fit in your pocket, and they are more likely to be used by bored dads trying to bond with their kids than by Navy SEALs in combat. Made largely obsolete with the advent mobile phones, handheld two-way radio transceivers only add value when outside of your provider’s cell service area, or maybe if you need to communicate intermittently with a few people standing sort of close by. 

The sitch with walkie-talkies is pretty straight forward, and a pattern we’ve seen frequently of late; revolutionary technology in its time, useful for decades, then blown out of the water by some magic we came up with more recently. No big deal really. Motorola has moved on to other things, RadioShack got f’ed, end of sitch. 

My interest lies in those who named the devices originally, what they were thinking, and why we didn’t allow them to continue naming other things. 

Again, at their advent, these radio transmitters allowed rapid, private communication, through the fucking AIR, anywhere you could lug them. This was huge progress, as the other options at the time were running a wire between people who wanted to talk, or tying a piece of paper to a bird’s foot or some shit. Walkie-talkies were a big deal. Probably helped win the war, or at the very least helped some young, brave men on our side not die, while young, brave men on the other side did. 

But then, when it came time to choose an appropriate name, it seems like someone asked a six-year-old to describe what the new device allowed the person using it to do. “He like, ummm, walkies and talkies?” Yeah, let’s go with that. End of brain-storm-sesh.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m all for it. More often we need to describe our world as a pre-adolescent would. That’s not an oven, that’s a heatie-box. No longer is that a knife, but rather a slicey-stick. Snorkel? How about underwater breathie-tube.

And the aim isn’t so much to make our language more childish as it is to make our language more immediately descriptive. I know exactly what a walkie-talkie does the moment you bring it up in conversation, even if there are a few details missing. But cellular telephone? I need to know what cellular, and tele- and phone mean, and even then, I’m a little confused. How about long-range walkie-talkie? Same number of syllables.

The walkie-talkie name seems like it may have been a “right place, right time,” type of sitch. Technology then was new and fun, but simple enough to be described by a few well-placed words. This may be a more difficult and verbose approach with our new gadgets that can do so much. “My touchy musical internety game-filled picture-taking long-range walkie talkie,” is much harder to say than, “My iPhone 6s,” and actually does a worse job describing all of its potential features. 

We don’t need to go back and reword nouns that the majority of people are familiar with. And using the language of a wonder-filled child isn’t always practical as everything gets progressively more complex. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something from the guy who named walkie-talkies. Next time you are trying to explain something that you could make sound complex, instead, channel your inner eight-year-old, remember that hero who named two-way portable radio transmitters ‘walkie-talkies,’ and try to use language we can all understand.

As a quick follow-up, although this probably deserves an entire sitch of its own, let me just mention the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet. This was developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) following WWII, because so many letters sound alike, and sometimes these people were spelling out very important shit via spotty radio transmissions. Here is the alphabet itself: 

A = Alpha

B = Bravo

C = Charlie

D = Delta

E = Echo

F = Foxtrot

G = Golf

H = Hotel

I = India

J = Juliet

K = Kilo

L = Lima

M = Mike

N = November

O = Oscar

P = Papa

Q = Quebec

R = Romeo

S = Sierra

T = Tango

U = Uniform

W = Whiskey

X = Xray

Y = Yankee

Z = Zulu

In developing the alphabet, hundreds of thousands of comprehension tests were given to individuals of 31 different nationalities. Words were chosen based on the likelihood they would be understood in the context of the other words, by people who don’t necessarily speak English. Knowing how much effort and thought went into this, the word choices are pretty goofy. What’s a Foxtrot? Quebec made it in? Xray was all you got for X? Probably could have just left that letter alone. Anyway, I thought this warranted inclusion in the current discussion of radio communication and having silly language for important things.

Over and out.

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