Luke’s Life

Morse Code Influences on Ham Radio Lingo

Posted in geeky, school by lrobison on March 26, 2007

I wrote this paper for my linguistics class. Since I did most of my research through the Internet, I thought I should post my paper back to the Internet. I also posted the paper in pdf form here: Morse Code Influences on Ham Radio Lingo

Morse Code Influences on Ham Radio Jargon

The origins of much of today’s ham radio jargon traces back to early codewords and usages of Morse code. Codewords are short sequences that are sent by encoding each character of the word in Morse code, and tapping out that Morse on the radio, just as you would send any other word. To understand the jargon used by amateur radio operators, one must first consider the origins of radio communication. Samuel Morse introduced Morse Code and the telegraph in the 1840’s and 1850’s, and his invention spread rapidly through the states, especially along railroad lines. In 1896 Marconi was the first person to send Morse code by radio waves, and amateur radio was born. By 1912 radiotelegraph had grown enough that Congress begun to regulate the frequencies available to amateur and private stations. These stations all used Morse until voice transmission was made possible in 1920, although Morse was still in common use through the 1950’s…

The first Morse transmitters would effectively transmit on all frequencies, so all stations in range of each other were forced to be quick and concise as to not interfere with each other. This combined with the heavy traffic in harbors led to the adoption of the Q-codes in 1913 a set of 3 character codewords beginning with the character Q. These codes would be transmitted as a replacement for their longer meanings, and would often have both question and answer forms. Originally only QRA-QRZ and QSA-QSZ were used because S- and R- codes had already been established. In the Q-code system, QSO is defined as “can you communicate with . . . direct or by relay? I can communicate with . . . direct (or by relay through . . .)”1. Almost all Q-codes are defined in a similar way, and would be used as in the following example. Station A sends “QSO? WB5UMD” to station B, asking B if it can reach the station with call letters WB5UMD. Station B replies with “QSO WB5UMD”, indicating that it can reach that station. Even though Q-codes were designed for use in continuous wave mode (also known as CW mode, the mode for sending Morse code), several of the Q-codes are still around today on the phone modes (the mode a radio must be in to send and receive voices), and are very common in ham manuals. In an interesting trend, the most common use of Q-codes in manuals and books is to convert the phrase to a noun. Thus QSO roughly means a conversation or contact, and an “eyeball QSO” is a face to face meeting without radios. Similarly, QRM was defined by “Is my transmission being interfered with? Your transmission is being interfered with,” but The Radio Amateur’s Handbook of 1973 uses the noun form to mean interference when instructing the amateur to avoid hogging the airwaves: “keep it short, so as not to clutter up the air with unnecessary QRM.” As with QSO, QRM has been applied to non-radio circumstances. As early as 1929, Macon Fry reports that a ham complained “I couldn’t get on the air last night; nursery QRM (interference). My brat had a cough.”2 The ARRL handbook also tells hams to be careful not to interrupt others by saying “listen on the frequency first; don’t plop on a QSO in progress.” Other examples of a noun forms of a Q-code include QSL cards, which are used to acknowledge a QSO, QTH which means location, and QRP for low power operations.

CQ is possibly the most used code on the amateur radio frequencies today. CQ means “calling all stations” or a CQ call can have more specific information appended to indicate who the call is for. For example, “CQ WB5UMD” is a call for station WB5UMD to respond, and “CQ VK” is a call for anyone from Australia to respond (Australia’s callsign prefix is “VK”). CQ was introduced to the airwaves by English telegraphers, who had used it on their landlines. CQ is derived from the first two syllables of the French sécurité, meaning “safety” or “pay attention.”3 It was made into the first distress call by appending a ‘D’ to mean “calling all stations, I am in distress.” In 1912 the international radio convention in London adopted CQ as “attention.” A common activity of ham radio operators is to see how far their radios can reach by calling distant stations. This is usually accomplished by sending a series of “CQ DX” transmissions, and is known as DX-ing, from the term DX, meaning distance.

Even though London had adopted CQD as a distress call, it was far from standardized across all communications. The earliest distress call was QRR, and was closely tied to Railroad telegraph lines, but the ARRL changed the call to QRRR to avoid confusion with the international QRR code (meaning “please wait”). On the high seas, shipping companies discouraged their operators from communicating with operators from competing companies. This, combined with the large number of distress codewords made emergency communication difficult or hard to recognize among the frequently busy radio chatter. The 1906 radio conference heard proposals for a standard distress code, and finally selected the code commonly used in Germany: SOE, but changed it to SOS because the E ( a single {·} ) could be easily lost in transmission4. The result was the {· · · ━ ━ ━ · · ·} code that is recognized as SOS today. But adoption didn’t become standard until after the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic in 1912. It is worth noting that {· · · ━ ━ ━ · · ·} does not stand for Save Our Ship, and in the 1912 report on the international radiotelegraph convention, the letters “SOS” are not even mentioned, only the {· · · ━ ━ ━ · · ·} symbol5.

One on the earliest codes set in place to increase communication efficiency was the “92 Code” set in place by the Western Union Company in 1859 for use on land-line telegraphs. This code was a list of numbers between 1 and 92 that could be substituted for common phases. Many of the phrases were for traffic control on the line, but a few of the numbers were just common phases that would be wasteful to transmit at full length. Of these codes, 3 numbers are of particular interest. The number 73 represented the message “best regards,” and because the Q-codes had no equivalent, 73 remained popular among hams transmitting on their wireless rigs. The 73 code was so prevalent that even after voice modes were the most common transmission mode, hams would frequently end their transmission by saying “73,” and still do so now. Most of the other 92-codes have fallen out of usage, so low power operators (QRPers) will occasionally end a conversation with “72,” saying that they don’t quite have enough power for a full 73. The meaning of 73 has changed over time as it has been adopted by the ham community as traditional and an identifying term. Earliest references to 73 list it as meaning “accept my compliments” in the flowery style of speech common in the 1850’s, but this was later shortened to “compliments” in a manual published in the late 1890’s, and by 1908 most sources translate 73 to mean “best regards”. As Morse code usage was replaced by voice and digital communication, 73 gained an overtone of camaraderie among hams and specifically hams communicating via CW.

From the 92-Code also comes “30”, which meant “No more (end).” In classic American Morse code, this was sent as {· · · ━ ·}=“3” followed by a long {━━}=“0”. This is probably of the origin of the modern “SK” code for “end of transmission.” The code “SK” is transmitted in Morse as {· · ·}=“S” {━ · ━}=“K”, and is functionally equivalent to a “30” transmission if the “0” is shortened to a regular {━}6. Similarly, ham operators typically replace “and” with “es” when transmitting and copying (writing down) messages. This originates from the American Morse usage of the ampersand character ‘&’, which was sent as {· · · ·}7. The International Code did not have a character for ‘&’, and so operators opted to send “es”. The two codes look almost identical when written, but when transmitted, the {·} of the ‘e’ and the {· · ·} of the ‘s’ have a “short gap” between them, rather than the “long intra-character gap” used between the {·} and {· · ·} in the code for ‘&’8. The “es” for “and” replacement is only used in text: either CW, writing, Internet posts, or any of the new digital text transmission methods. Another text-only carry-over from Morse is laughing. Hams will sometimes represent laughing or amusement by sending “hi hi”on CW modes, which is used similar to the Internet term “lol.” The “hi hi” phrase is onomatopoeic, and sounds similar to a series of short quick laughs when sent as Morse Code. Sending {· · · · · ·} means “hi” but sounds like “heeheeheehee heehee”. It is not typically used in voice modes, but is not uncommon online and in other written forms.

The term “ham” for “amateur radio operator” has a rather mysterious origin. It seems to have come into usage around 1900-1910. Many radio operators have heard a few urban legends about the origin of the term, but the most likely origin, as confirmed by the ARRL website, is that “ham” originally was used to indicate a poor telegraph operator. In the early days or radio telegraphy, spark-gap transmitters forced everyone to share the same channel. The first radio telegraph operators came from the landline telegraph stations, and were familiar with the term “ham,” so when amateur operators would talk to each other, all other stations would have to compete with their signals. The old operators would complain about these new amateurs jamming their transmissions by complaining about “those hams,” as an insult. But just as Yankee Doodle was adopted by Americans, the insult “ham” was adopted by amateur operators, and it has since completely lost its original, insulting meaning, except in the phrase “ham fisted”. The “fist” of on operator describes how he sends his Morse. A ham is considered to have a good fist if his timing is even, and his tones are clear. The origin of fist comes from some of the very, very early spark transmitters, which would shower the operator in sparks. To protect themselves, the lever used to send the Morse was lengthened and pounded with a closed fist. This is also the origin of the phrase “Pounding the Brass,” which is used to describe any Morse code sending.

The codes and jargon of ham radio operators have changed significantly since conception a century ago. The oldest of these, the 92-codes have all but disappeared, but the Q-codes are still used by amateur radio enthusiasts, and by the marine and aviation industries. Morse code is more of an amusement now, and all international distress stations listen for either voice or even newer digital signals. But despite all the new technologies of the communication age, the influences of Morse code can still be observed today, and it is still a last resort for NASA and military systems.


1 ARRL. The Radio Amateur’s Handbook. Conneticut: American Radio Relay League, 1973.

2 Fry, Macon. “Ham Lingo.” American Speech (1929): 45-49 The American Dialect Society. Drake University Press.

3 ARRL. “ARRLWeb: Ham Radio History.” 22 Mar 2007 10:50 UTC. American Radio Relay League.


4 ARRL. “ARRLWeb: Ham Radio History.” 22 Mar 2007 10:50 UTC. American Radio Relay League.


5 “Service Regulations Affixed to the International Radiotelegraph Convention, London, 1912.” The American Journal of International Law 7.4, Supplement: Official Documents. (Oct., 1913), pp. 245-276. Stable URL: <;

6 ARRL. “ARRLWeb: Ham Radio History.” 22 Mar 2007 10:50 UTC. American Radio Relay League.


7 Dinkins, Rod (AC6V), et al. “ORIGINS OF HAMSPEAK, CQ, 73, DX, etc..” 22 Mar 2007 10:45 UTC. <;.

8 “American Morse code.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 16 Mar 2007, 22:18 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 16 Mar 2007 <;.

18 Responses

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  1. Tom Noll said, on April 1, 2007 at 5:55

    Nice essay. A few notes of interest:
    CW stands for Continuous Wave.
    Many hams use HI on phone, and even in person to express humor or to emphasize the friendly nature of a remark. Not so much in person anymore, though. See the story in Harpers about 6 months ago called “The antenna of the world” about legendary DXer Don Wallace, W6AM. Google him for some great information.
    Historian Kristen Haring recently published an interesting book: Ham Radio’s Technical Culture.
    73, Tom

  2. lrobison said, on April 1, 2007 at 12:09

    Oh, thanks for the catch on CW, I must have missed that proof-reading. I’ve corrected it above. I couldn’t find many references to HI in person, so thanks for the first-hand account.
    73, luke

  3. My Buffalo River Home said, on September 14, 2007 at 14:43

    […] … _._ SK […]

  4. LindaMc said, on April 1, 2008 at 4:41

    As a recently licensed amateur radio operator I’ve been trying to figure out what and why of some of the codes I’m hearing. Thanks for posting this easy-to-understand information. I trust you got an A+.

    Uh 73 ?

  5. T R Mortimer said, on July 23, 2008 at 9:10

    There is an error in “HI”; it’s not HI but HO. In original (Vail) Morse, letter O was two dits with a short space. This has been corrupted, as with “ES”, to HI. Only a ninny laughs “HI HI HI”. The authority on bonhomie, $anta Clau$, says “HO HO HO”.

    73 – G2JL

  6. lrobison said, on August 10, 2008 at 22:36


    I couldn’t find many references of using “HO HO” to describe laughing in Morse. Even if the spelling of “hi hi” sounds odd to say, it still shows up even in forum posts if you do a search for “hi hi morse”. I couldn’t find any reliable sources on this right now, but a quick search brings up a few individually written pages that seem to reflect this: for instance. I’d be curious if you could point me in the direction of some research for the O->I translation. During my research I didn’t manage to find a full description of early morse alphabets.


  7. T R Mortimer said, on October 19, 2009 at 10:50

    Grief !
    Sorry about the delay in replying ! I spend six months on Lipsi as SV5/G2JL & six at home, and it’s easy to lose track. The original Morse/Vail code, used on landlines in USA was rather different from the international code we have today. It’s easy to look up on the Internet, and it used to be in the ARRL handbook, though I haven’t bought one for many years, now.

    73 – Mort

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  9. john said, on January 16, 2011 at 17:44

    I thought that end of message (in plain morse) di di di dah di dah was vic ack (end of message, out).

    Di di di dah di dah in plain, in wartime means SK (silent key). That is, the last message of any operator when there is no time for codebooks, who makes the last sacrfice for their country.

  10. Skip said, on February 7, 2011 at 23:08

    Nice paper. Someone commented on “end of message.” That was always either AR [.-.-.], “End of message, more to follow,” or ARN [.-.-.-.], “End of message, no more” in the Coastal Marine Service.

    It’s too bad Alfred Vail doesn’t get more credit, American Morse [the landline telegraph] is really his code. Sam was a somewhat vain guy, obsessed with transmitting messages via numbers one looked up in a dictionary. Alfred, after some experience with the telegraph device, realized that you could just send numbers AND letters using the sounds.

    There was an interesting and intense controversy over messages on the landline telegraph being copied by ear [from the noises the tape inker made] vs those read off the inked tape. “Copy by ear” won, but it was a real commercial battle.


    Skip, K6DGW

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  15. LOL In The Age Of The Telegraph « said, on September 1, 2015 at 6:11

    […] He shared with me the existence of abbreviations in Morse code, specifically one for laughter. The sequence HI HI, …. .. …. .., is a short form for laughter and is a favorite among amateur radio communicators. It could even be seen as an early predecessor to LOL. […]

  16. […] He shared with me the existence of abbreviations in Morse code, specifically one for laughter. The sequence HI HI, …. .. …. .., is a short form for laughter and is a favorite among amateur radio communicators. It could even be seen as an early predecessor to LOL. […]

  17. […] He shared with me the existence of abbreviations in Morse code, specifically one for laughter. The sequence HI HI, …. .. …. .., is a short form for laughter and is a favorite among amateur radio communicators. It could even be seen as an early predecessor to LOL. […]

  18. […] He shared with me the existence of abbreviations in Morse code, specifically one for laughter. The sequence HI HI, …. .. …. .., is a short form for laughter and is a favorite among amateur radio communicators. It could even be seen as an early predecessor to LOL. […]

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