The usage of physics terminology outside of technically minded people seems limited. That's why I am curious about the phrase being on the same wavelength which as far as I understand is generally understood (and also exists in at least the German language)

  • What is the origin of this phrase?

  • Does it refer originally to interference or resonance or radio or...?

  • What other physics/maths/engineering terms are used in common English language?

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    (3) Try to square the circle / put two and two together / not add up / do the maths / re-invent the wheel / have a screw loose / be off one's rocker Dec 23 '16 at 8:38
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    [Not] firing on all cylinders / get one's wires crossed / 'It's not rocket science' / a cog in the machine / the ghost in the machine / a sputnik moment / a well-oiled machine / blow off steam / let off steam / run out of steam / steam radio/typewriter / up and running / bent out of line / not the brightest bulb / not the sharpest chisel in the toolbox / light years ahead / Dec 23 '16 at 9:47

being on the same wavelength is hardly "physics terminology" or limited to "technically minded people". Anyone who wished to listen to a radio program had to turn the dial until the receiver was on the same wavelength as the station broadcasting the program.

from http://dxinternational.blogspot.co.il/2011/08/from-archives-tuning-in-longwave-bands.html

on the same wavelength
In complete accord, in rapport, as in Conductor, orchestra members, soloists, and chorus all were on the same wavelength, making for a wonderful performance . This term alludes to radio waves that carry a broadcast. [First half of 1900s]
American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms

  • Yeah, but it would be a pretty boring concert if they were all literally on the same wavelength (as in playing the same note). Except they couldn't actually do that with most instruments, because they'd have different harmonics mixed in with the base waveform. Dec 23 '16 at 13:20
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    Radio is electromagnetic spectrum, and it has the wavelength. Music is sound, and that's not EMS. Anyway, humans don't tune sounds by wavelength -- we come already equipped for sound communication. -- so the usage is metaphoric and recent in music, where it's very straightforwardly literal in EMS. There are waves and they can be measured and tuned -- and must be, to use radio communication. Dec 23 '16 at 21:39
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    @FumbleFingers If you want to get technical about it, a radio transmission using only a single wavelength produces no sound from the receiver. As soon as the carrier is modulated to transmit the sound of the orchestra, it consists of multiple wavelengths (exactly which ones depends on the type of modulation). But at least for conventional broadcasts, we still decode them by tuning the receiver to the (single) nomimal wavelength of the carrier.
    – David K
    Dec 23 '16 at 21:47
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    @FumbleFingers same wavelength means same station, same channel, not same note. Musicians on the same page of sheet music aren't necessarily playing the same note, but they are "on the same page." Two people in separate rooms whose radios are tuned to the same wavelength will hear the same words and music at the same time.
    – barbecue
    Dec 23 '16 at 22:15
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    @fumblefingers I think the point is that the wavelength of the music itself is not what is being described in the "same wavelength" metaphor, rather it's the radio frequency which one tunes in to listen to that music. Your comment seemed to be conflating the two separate things.
    – barbecue
    Dec 23 '16 at 23:03

Yes, the origin is from an analogy with electromagnetic waves used in radio transmissions:


  • o wave-length, 1850, "distance between peaks of a wave," from wave (n.) + length. Originally of spectra; radio sense is attested by 1925.

  • Figurative sense of "mental harmony" is recorded from 1927, on analogy of radio waves.


In the following link below you can find other idiomatic expressions related to scientific contexts such as:

enter image description here:

  • A good example of a science-oriented idiom would be to “blind someone with science” which means to confuse someone with language that is highly technical. Another would be “to have something down to a science” which means something is totally understood and managed extremely well. Let’s look at more idioms that refer to science and some that are included in science jargon.



As others have said, the idiom is almost certainly referring to old-time radio. Radio bands used to be (and still are, to ham radio operators and radio engineers) identified by "wavelength" -- the length of a single wave of the radio signal. (Among other things this related to the size of the antenna.) Being "on the same wavelength" didn't necessarily imply being at exactly the same frequency, but meant that the two signals being compared were close in frequency -- there was a chance that a radio receiver could relatively easily be tuned from one to the other.

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