Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Wi-fi jumprope

At a recent committee meeting, where the provision of wireless internet access in our college library was discussed, someone raised the question “What does ‘wifi’ mean, anyway?” As it happens, I’d looked into that about a decade ago, when I was brought up short by a bizarre comment in an article the East Bay Express (a generally excellent free weekly in the Berkeley-Oakland area):

In the East Bay, cities such as Concord, Hayward, San Pablo, and Walnut Creek are launching or planning on launching citywide wi-fi, which is short for wireless fidelity.

I’d been a fairly early adopter of wireless internet, having installed it at home in 2003, before it was available in many public places (though I’d first encountered it at the University of Copenhagen, when I attended a conference there in January 2003; at that time my Apple laptop didn’t have any built-in wireless connectivity) but I’d never paid much attention to the term “wifi”, which seemed silly to me. I assumed it was a meaningless back-formation from “hi-fi” — odd in a way, since that term itself was so outdated, and even in my childhood I knew it mainly as a joke, as in the Peanuts strip (which itself was more than a decade old at that point) where Lucy boasts to Charlie Brown that she has a “hi-fi jumprope” — which turned out to be true. But I found it hilarious that some journalists completed the cycle, assuming that if “hi-fi” was short for “high fidelity” and “wi-fi” is analogous to “hi-fi”, then “wi-fi” stands for “wireless fidelity”.

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