It’s not surprising that most communities have their own brand of slang. But then, ham radio has its own brand of English that one needs to get used to when you get into the hobby. And some of it is abbreviated – hams have been doing that before text messaging and Twitter was even conceived.
Take, for instance: if I were to initiate a contact on the HF band, or on two-meter sideband, or even on FM simplex (but not on a repeater), I would say, “CQ CQ CQ…” One would think, “Why those two letters, C and Q? Why not something more understandable, like ‘NE1, NE1, NE1…’”
It turns out that CQ, like much of ham lingo, has its roots in good old fashioned wired telegraphy. English telegraph operators used the CQ signal to call attention to all operators along a wire (much as the current Q-code QST does today…more on that in another article). The letters CQ come from the first two syllables of the French word sécurité, meaning security, safety, or in this case, “pay attention.” When British operators, many of whom were former landline telegraphers, went to sea, their codes went with them, and CQ became a general call to all ships. It, however, lacked the sound of urgency needed of a distress call (back in those days, in the crowded bands of the early 20th century, a CQ would have gotten lost in the noise), and it was eventually replaced with SOS for distress calls, with CQ remaining a general purpose call.
Today, on the air, CQ still retains its original meaning of “attention,” but according to the ARRL, quoting Thomas Raddell, its meaning has evolved into something like “yelling ‘Hey Mac!’ down a drain pipe.”
Getting back to the contact, I call CQ, you answer, we have a nice ragchew, and when you sign off, you say to me, “Well, it’s been great talking with you, Keith. 73.” Why 73? Why not some other number? Why not 43 or 103?
(If hams were fans of Douglas Adams’ novels, maybe they might be partial to 42. But I digress…)
Again, we’re back to the days of landline telegraphs. In 1859, Western Union standardized what came to be known as the 92 code, in which the numbers from 1 to 92 were assigned meanings. Most of them fell into disuse, although we occasionally see a few remnants. Code 30, for instance, was the standard code for “no more;” this code is still used occasionally at the end of press releases.
Code 73 itself was first used in 1857, with the meaning “My love to you!” But within a short time its meaning evolved from the romantic to strictly platonic – “from a Valentine-type sentiment to a vague sign of fraternalism.” It was used as a “friendly word between operators.” In early versions of the 92 code, 73 became “accept my compliments.” To make a long story short, the meaning of 73 further evolved until by 1908 it acquired its current meaning of “best regards,” and came nearly full circle in its use as a friendly word between operators.
Two sidenotes: 73’s original meaning of “My love to you” is preserved in the current code 88, meaning “Hugs and kisses.” Incidentally, because their meanings are plural, 73 and 88 are always used in the singular. Saying “73s” is like saying “best regardses.”
For more information, check out the history page on the ARRL website.
(edit 2/28/12: I’ve been learning French on the side, and I found that I totally forgot to include the acute accents on sécurité. C’est corrigé. Désolé.)