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Us Yanks (and Canucks, eh?) use the term "flashlight", but everywhere else in the English-speaking world, it's called a "torch".

Normally I'm pretty good at translating British to American, but today an English colleague of mine quipped "Tap the torch app, would ya?". He caught me off-guard and of course looked at me like I was an idiot before I realized he wanted me to shine my phone on his hands so he could see what he was doing. I just told him not to get his chumbly-wumblys in a tizzy and we had a good laugh about it.

But seriously, I've always wondered how the term "flashlight" came to be and why only North Americans seem to use it. This terribly gaudy website mentions that the earliest lamps used carbon filament bulbs and weak batteries, and could thus only be "flashed" on for a few seconds at a time. But I don't really buy this explanation because these devices were a rare, expensive novelty item in those days and dysphemisms like that usually refer to things that are commonly known (i.e. everybody gets the joke).

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    This is an interesting question. I don't recall ever seeing an explanation of the term, though it certainly goes back as far as I can remember. Ngram finds an early reference in 1893, but it appears to be a reference to flash photography. 1907 appears to be the earliest use of the term in it's familiar sense (in a series of boys' adventure books titled The Bradys). – Hot Licks Sep 22 '16 at 1:15
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    The Bradys, then The Hardy Boys monopolize the use of the term until the end of the 1920s, when Nancy Drew takes over. The other major use of the term is in photography (what we would call "flash photography"), which appears to continue until the mid 1930s, at least. The 1930 census uses the term in it's modern sense. And by the 1940s and WWII the term appears to be solidly established by the military. – Hot Licks Sep 22 '16 at 1:30
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    (Younger folks may be unfamiliar with the concept of "flash photography" as it existed roughly 1870-1970. Initially light for a photograph was obtained by burning magnesium powder and other chemicals in a sort of trough held overhead, making a bright flash for a second or two. But around 1930 "flash bulbs" were invented which were single-shot light bulbs containing the chemicals -- much safer, and making it practical to (sometimes) attach the flash mechanism to the camera. It wasn't until the late 50s that "electronic flash" began to be used, though flash bulbs were used until about 1970.) – Hot Licks Sep 22 '16 at 1:41
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    Early US military D cell flashlights had a slide switch (latching) and a button (momentary) for sending Morse Code. The latter function may have had something to do with the name. – Phil Sweet Sep 24 '16 at 3:35
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The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, published between 1889-1914, has two definitions for flash-light:

  1. n. A light so arranged as to emit sudden brilliant gleams, lasting but a short time: used for military signals and in lighthouses. See lighthouse.

  2. n. flash-light A preparation emitting when ignited a sudden and very brilliant light, used in taking instantaneous photographs at night or in a room insufficiently lighted by natural light, etc. It usually consists chiefly of a magnesium powder, sometimes in combination with guncotton.

So the word flashlight precedes the invention of the device we most commonly call a flashlight today, which Wordnet 3.0 defines as "a small portable battery-powered electric lamp".

This helps us to establish that the earliest uses of the word were connected to lighting sources characterized by brief duration. When coupled with my personal experience with antique batteries and short-lived carbon filaments, it goes a long way towards proving that the explanation offered by The Flashlight Museum on wordcraft.net is likely to be correct:

The first trustworthy lighting device was the flashlight, invented about 1896. Portable electric lights were called "flash lights" since they would not give a long steady stream of light. The carbon filament bulbs were inefficient and the batteries were weak, allowing the user to flash the light on for only a few seconds, then release the contact. Very early lights did not have an on/off switch, just a ring or tab that would push against a button or band of metal.

Regarding why Brits prefer the word torch, one may as well ask why they prefer to call the trunk of an automobile a "boot", the hood a "bonnet", an elevator a "lift", French fries "chips", potato chips "crisps", cookies "biscuits", and biscuits "scones". I am sure the 3000 miles of ocean separating them from the U.S.A. has something to do with it.

  • Well, trunk/boot is relatively easy to explain. The "boot" is the area on a horse-drawn coach where the coachman's boots rest, while a "trunk" is indeed a trunk that is attached to the top of back of a coach. (A "trunk" was also commonly attached to the back of a motorcar.) Sometimes items such as small satchels would be stashed in the boot, sometimes in a trunk, and the practice probably differed on opposite sides of the pond. A motorcar of course didn't have a real "boot", but once the concept was established with horse-drawn coaches the terminology "stuck". – Hot Licks Sep 22 '16 at 3:32
  • @HotLicks The "boot" of a horse-drawn "coach", you say! But we should not forget an open horse-drawn carriage with postillions to the fore and aft, as in, "My postillion has been struck by lightening!" (from late 19th century Hungarian-English phrase book). When was the last time your postillion was struck by lightening? I think we should be told. – Peter Point Sep 22 '16 at 5:11
  • I'm British, and my father, who was born in 1907, used to call it a flashlight. Presumably the term 'torch' took over in the UK some time in the early 20th century. – Kate Bunting Sep 22 '16 at 8:50
  • My Lancastrian grandfather, (I'm afraid I don't know what year he was born, but probably first decade of the last century) used both 'flashlight' and 'lamp' in preference to 'torch'.he was never in the forces so was unlikely to have picked up the term from American troops. – Spagirl Sep 22 '16 at 11:14

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