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I searched Google's "YouTube", it seems like "tube" is a nickname for "television". So, when did television get this nickname, and why?

EDIT

I have once considered tube as TV cube, does it make sense?

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Thought 'telly' was the name of television... and 'tube' for the subway... –  JFW Apr 3 '11 at 8:13
    
@JFW: Looks like you can still buy the domain YouTelly.com. –  Callithumpian Apr 3 '11 at 13:39
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"I have once considered tube as TV cube, should it be?" No. The "tube" part comes from the tubes inside of the TV. It is not a portmanteau of "TV cube", and there is no common situation in which the TV is referred to as a "cube". –  Kosmonaut Apr 3 '11 at 15:28
    
JFW, the tube is the nickname for the London Underground. Telly is an informal word for television dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/telly?q=telly –  Tristan r Jul 1 '14 at 18:47
    
Xiè Jìléi, referring to television as "tube" is not common in the UK. According to this link dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/tube_4 , it is MAINLY US. It seems to be a part of American English in particular. –  Tristan r Jul 1 '14 at 18:54

5 Answers 5

up vote 9 down vote accepted

To answer the when part of your question, it looks like the nickname took hold in the early 1960s. The earliest use of it in print I could find is from a 1962 television trade publication:

For such of the faithful who do care, Mike Dann, CBS-TV's vice president of network programs, has some happy thoughts. 'I think the boys are about to have their turn on the tube,' Dann cheerfully predicts.

Television magazine, Volume 19, Issue 3

It appears the term was used widely by advertisements for televisions promoting the latest technology behind their "color picture tubes." The term's popularity increased greatly in the 70s, peaked in the 80s, and has been in decline since then. (Unless, of course, you count the use of YouTube.)

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OK, tube can also mean other things, but the graph is quite self-explanatory ngrams.googlelabs.com/… –  nico Apr 3 '11 at 5:48
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@Nico: Nice. And using watch the x or turn on the x gives cleaner results. –  Callithumpian Apr 3 '11 at 13:43
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@Cal: Remember it's case sensitive, try this. –  Hugo Nov 10 '11 at 6:40
    
@Hugo: Yes, better still. –  Callithumpian Dec 31 '11 at 3:02

The CRT or Cathode Ray Tube is the vacuum tube/electron gun combination that (before plasma and LCD televisions) was the basis of all televisions and computer monitors.

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As tube for CRT, do people still call LCD TV as tube now? –  Xiè Jìléi Nov 10 '11 at 4:33
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@XieJilei, I would say 'the tube' is nearly dead as a term for TV, at least here in Australia. More widely used, and certainly more appropriate now, is 'the box'. Even if most TVs are flat rather than box-like. –  Snubian Nov 10 '11 at 4:46

From its invention in the nineteenth century at least until the mid 1950s, tube was used to mean telephone. This is confirmed in the OED’s 1959 citation, which is also the first documented recording of the use of tube to mean television.

1959 Esquire Nov. 70 Tube, can be television, but usually telephone. Example: Buzz me on the tube. Call me up.

In 1969, the UK’s ‘Daily Telegraph’ referred to television as the boob toob, an expression which these days has, I understand, a somewhat different meaning.

The first use in the UK of box to describe a television predates tube by a few years. It was earlier used to mean a radio, and before that a gramophone.

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Inside old TVs what the British call valves Americans called vacuum tubes or just tubes. The largest tube was the picture tube that's the front of the TV where you would watch the picture. Most people referred to it as TV but every now and then someone would call it the tube.

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With regard to the origin of "boob tube" or "boob toob," which Barrie England's answer attributes to the Daily Telegraph in 1969, a Google Books search finds instances of both spellings from at least 1962 ("boob tube") and 1968 ("boob toob").


Earliest instances of the spelling 'boob toob'

In Google books search results, the spelling "boob toob" is comparatively rare, but it does appear in several publications from the period 1968–1970. The earliest is from Educators Guide to Media & Methods, volume 5 (1968) [combined snippets]:

Listening to Horowitz might be a rewarding experience in itself for some students. But others would no doubt benefit from such classroom coaching as we've described. An imaginative teacher today can summon from the much-maligned "boob toob" a willing genii to help kids—not so much with their homework, as with their education.

And the second is from Ishmael Reed, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969):

That's what we've been trying to tell you all along, said the children. Come on, let's go, the late late late show is about to begin on the boob toob and we can watch eating Pooped Out Soggies.

Both of these authors are from the United States, so the spelling "boob toob" may have been formulated independently in the United States and in the UK in the late 1960s.


1962: The annus mirabilis of 'boob tube'

A Google Books search finds a surprisingly large number of verifiable instances of "boob tube" from 1962. From "Seen and Heard: A Great Conversation," in Presbyterian Life, volume 15 (1962) [combined snippets]:

An acquaintance recently referred to his television set as the "boob-tube." He pointed specifically to the seemingly unlimited numbers of mesomorphic, white-toothed people who flit across the twenty-four-inch wasteland, discussing such momentous affairs as gasoline, headaches, and soapier soap— although with fewer suds, of course. On rare occasions the underground movement of television network employees dedicated to truth and integrity strike back. They slip into the stream of nonsense a program of sense, portrayed with sensitivity. They insert into the flow of homogenized blah a few words of truth that have immediate pertinence for the understanding of our present life together in this world.

I confirmed at Hathi Trust that volume 15 of Presbyterian Life is indeed from 1962, and that "boob tube" does indeed appear on page 40 of that periodical.

From Arts Canada, volume 19 (1962) [combined snippets]:

It is, of course, the mass audience, and its continuing victory is daily affirmed by the only arbiters who (for practical purposes) really count: the rating service soothsayers, the network satraps, and the sponsors. This audience comes across the criticisms of television from time to time in in P-TA discussions or articles read in dentists' waiting rooms, and its awareness of them is apparent in such phrases as "idiot lantern," "goggle box" and "boob tube." And yet there is something like embarrassed affection in the use of these terms, as when one speaks of a mild, longstanding, favourite delinquency. Dame Barbara can deplore and threaten all she wants; the wasteland can absorb her without a tremor.

From "TV Prices Low," in The Painter and Decorator, volume 76 (1962) [combined snippets]:

Television set manufacturers have become concerned over current public reaction against the quality of TV shows—what has become known in the industry as the “boob-tube” image. The effect of the loss of interest in TV programs is that set manufacturers are keeping their prices down, and in fact are offering some excellent values. Several manufacturers recently introduced 19-inch portables listing at $140. Thus with discounts these are available in the $115-$120 bracket.

Other 1962 instances of "boob tube" pop up in The New Yorker, Field & Stream, and Cosmopolitan.

And from "Don't Wait on Boob Tube, Showman Warns," in The Film Daily, volume 122 (1963) [combined snippets]:

Don't Wait on Boob Tube, Showman Warns

Hartford—John Scanlon III, operator of the Lockwood & Rosen-owned Strand at Winsted, Conn., doesn't mind telling the public what HE thinks.

...

Advertising a double Universal bill—"40 Pounds of Trouble" and "Mystery Submarine"—showman Scanlon said: "Not To Be Seen For Years On the Boob Tube. You Must See It Now. You'll Be Too Late If You Wait!"

IMDb searches confirms that 40 Pounds of Trouble was released in 1962 and Mystery Submarine was released in 1963.

You may have noticed that two of the block quotes cited above refer to television as a "wasteland." That is in homage to U.S. Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow's remarks in a speech delivered on May 9, 1961:

I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

The wave of references to television as "the boob tube" begins within a year of Minow's speech and appears to be part of the same backlash against that medium.


'The tube' without the 'boob'

I checked several combinations of words in hopes of finding early instances where "the tube" was used in everyday writing to refer to television. For the phrase "glued to the tube," the earliest match (by five years) is from Frontier magazine, issue 2 (1964) [combined snippets]:

If your tot seems to be glued to the tube a lot, though, and you wonder whether anyone knows anything about what's happening to him, you might drop six bits (or three francs) to UNESCO in Paris, and ask for a copy of The Effects of Television on Children and Adolescents.

For "watch the tube," the earliest match is from Saturday Review, volume 50 (August 1967) [combined snippets]:

Certain snobs maintain that they read books but never watch TV. Another group of people watch the tube but never crack a book. Yet there is a third assortment who read books and watch television, although, not, in the ordinary course, simultaneously. For those of us in that category, the return this summer of one man to the little screen makes it glow more brightly. I refer, of course, to Steve Allen, a man who, like many Americans, has a place in his life for books and television.

The earliest instance of "watching the tube" is from "Where, Where Is Your Wife?" a poem published in Ghost Dance (1968):

I abandoned her, I abandoned her./I left her watching the tube./Now I'm on my way to a party./Christmas comes very soon./Why did you abandon your wife?/Why did you abandon her?/She was almost dead from sleeping/and blind from watching the tube.

Even later are the first instances of "showing on the tube" (1973), "what's on the tube" (1974), "see on the tube" (1976), and "staring at the tube" (1978).

Such references to "the tube" grew rapidly during the 1970s, but by then "boob tube" was well known as an insulting term for television.


Conclusion

I'm not at at all sure that "the tube" (as a shortening of "cathode ray tube" or "picture tube") was an independently popular way of referring to television as of 1962, notwithstanding stray mentions of "the tube" as early as 1959 (in reference both to TV sets and to telephones), according to the OED. It seems quite possible that popular usage of "the tube" may instead have caught on as a shortening of "the boob tube" following widespread adoption of that term in the United States in 1962.

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