Throwback Thursday: The Origin of the Word “Laser”

“What’s in a name?” It is difficult to imagine a laser called by any other name. The word itself sounds a bit futuristic in nature. While the unaware may imagine that the laser was simply named upon discovery, the history of the word has an intriguing depth and history to it.

Before the 20th century, “laser” had a very different meaning. In ancient civilizations, specifically Egyptian and Mediterranean cultures, “laser” referred to the resin of the silphium plant. The silphium plant, now considered an extinct species, was used as a food seasoning and for a variety of medicinal properties. While this has little bearing on the lasers of today, the shared namesake is an interesting historical coincidence.

Instead, the naming of the laser took after its predecessor, the maser. The maser, at its origin, was not actually its own word, but rather an acronym standing for “Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation” Laser, differing only in its energy source, is “Light Amplification by Stimulate Emission of Radiation” Both acronyms eventually evolved into their own accepted singular word over the course of a few decades.

Gordon Gould, one of a handful who fought for the laser patent rights, is credited with coining the acronym, and by extension the word “laser,” although he is not credited with the patent for the laser itself. (He was later awarded a number of other patents, related to laser development and applications.)

While the acronym-turned-word origin may not be as interesting as ancient roots in Latin or Greek, “laser” and “maser” make for intriguing examples of acronyms turned to commonly accepted words, joining the likes of “radar” which was initially an acronym for “RAdio Detection And Ranging”

The evolution of these acronyms into full-fledged words makes an interesting argument in favor of the influence of science and technology on language. It is a marked evolution of language, in direct contrast to criticisms that argue the acceptance of acronyms and initialisms as words.

“Laser” has come a long way since it was coined in the 1960’s, leading to its modification for different tenses. Lasing refers to the “generation of coherent light by a laser” and to lase means “to give off coherent light, as in a laser”

These variations illuminate the transition of “laser” from an etymological standpoint. While the origin of the word pales in comparison to the applications of lasers, the history of the word shines a light, or rather lases the impact of lasers upon the world. At the very least, it makes a great “betcha didn’t know fact” among laser professionals and word nerds alike.