English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin Writing

How do you copy?

Q: Can you shed some light on how the verb “copy” came to mean receive or understand a message?

A: The use of “copy” for receive or understand is ultimately derived from its use by American telegraph operators in the 19th century to mean translate and write down Morse code transmissions in English.

In The Telegraph Manual (1859), Taliaferro Preston Shaffner describes the receipt of a message in the late 1840s by an operator at a US telegraph station, where the dots and dashes could be heard on a sounder and read on a printout:

“The operator put the machinery in motion, and he read from the paper the dispatch as it was slowly received. He read aloud, and the copyist, near by, wrote it down with a pencil; and when thus finished, it was handed to the copying clerk, whose duty it was to copy it on the forms as represented by B [an image of a Western Union form]. It was then enveloped and handed to the messenger for delivery.”

This clunky procedure changed dramatically soon after two Northeastern telegraph companies merged on July 1, 1852, as the New York and New England Union Telegraph Company, according to The Telegraph in America (1870), by James D. Reid.

On Oct. 9, 1852, the reorganized company declared its first dividend, Reid writes, and “at this time a stroke of economy was made by Director Thomas M. Clark,” who ordered “that all Morse operators be instructed to copy their own messages as they receive them.”

Thus the telegraph operators took on the work of the copyists and later the copy clerks. To speed up the “drudgery of reading from the paper and then copying,” Reid says, the operators “learned instinctively to catch the sounds by ear” from the sounder and copy them down in English.

As a result, the verb “copy” in telegraph jargon came to mean to receive, translate, and write down. That’s the way J. E. Smith uses it in Manual of Telegraphy Designed for Beginners (1865):

“Students with a clear understanding of the customs and principles set forth in these instructions, and able to copy each other’s telegraphic writing by sound at the rate of thirty-five words per minute, may consider themselves operators.”

In the early 20th century, amateur radio operators in the US began using the verb “copy” in a similar way, as in this example from the August 1917 issue of QST, the monthly magazine of the American Radio Relay League:

“Nightly, we copy KHK, Wahiawa, TH [Territory of Hawaii], distance from San Francisco being 2089 miles, and are not only able to copy him easily, but always on the mill [a typewriter for transcribing Morse code].”

Radio amateurs may also have used “copy” over the next few decades to mean understand or receive a message (the sense you’re asking about), but it’s unclear from many of the written examples we’ve seen whether the verb is being used in the new or the old meaning.

The earliest definite example of the new sense that we’ve found is from a July 1960 exchange of American military radio transmissions. Here’s the conversation, as reported in a December 1960 article in QST (the magazine’s title is code for a broadcast to all radio amateurs):

“W4GGA, this is 9Q5US, are you in Washington?”

“This is W4GGA, and I’m in Washington. The handle here is Ken, and you’re five and nine plus, beautiful signal, how do you copy me? Over.”

“This is 9Q5US. Read you 5 by 9, handle here is Frenchy, can you get hold of the CNO [Chief of Naval Operations] at the Pentagon?”

“Wait one, Frenchy. Go ahead. I have Admiral [Arleigh] Burke on.”

(The author of the QST article, Sgt. Edouard D. Courneyer,  was an Army communications specialist on loan to the Naval attaché at the US embassy in Leopoldville, now Kinshasa, Congo. He was using the handle Frenchy and the call sign 9Q5US. The article says the radio exchange took part “during the early part of July when hostilities began in the Congo.” The hostilities broke out after the Belgian Congo was granted independence on July 1, 1960.)

And here’s an example from a 1962 report by NASA on a manned orbital space flight:

“Hello Sigma Seven. Cape Cap Tech. How do you copy?”

“I copy you loud and clear, Murph.”

(From Results of the Third U.S. Manned Orbital Space Flight October 3, 1962, a December 1962 report by NASA’s Office of Scientific and Technical Information.)

Finally, this example is from an article about the Apollo 13 mission, “The Magnificent Apollos,” by Ernest K. Gann, Flying magazine, September 1970:

“Hey, Apollo, I have you now at 1.2 miles. Do you copy?”

“Loud and clear, for a change. And I concur on distance. How can you look so good when you’re so ugly?”

“What pot is calling the kettle black? We figure half a mile now with a closure of 19 feet a second.”

“Keep her coming. Don’t be so shy.”

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