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Another question asks for the meaning and origin of the phrase "wound [i.e., 'winded'] for sound." The obvious conclusion over there is that "wound for sound" is likely a rhyming variation on the older phrase "wired for sound." There's also general consensus that "wired for sound" at some point had the slang meaning of "high on amphetamines," leading to the modern sense of the word "wired."

Someone on PhraseOrigins points to the Cliff Richard single "Wired for Sound" (1981) and claims it has something to do with portable music players (as in, headphone wires)... but frankly even Cliff Richard's song isn't about portable music in particular. ("I like small speakers, I like tall speakers...")

Also, the phrase itself goes way far back. I first encountered it in Irving Berlin's lyrics from the movie This is the Army (1943):

When the night is clear, and the bombardier
Drops a bomb that's wired for sound,
How I yearn to return, with my head in the clouds,
To the one I love on the ground.

Actually, a Google Books search (which sadly I cannot figure out how to link to, but you can click the search links at the bottom of the Ngram Viewer page) shows pretty conclusively that the phrase comes from movie theaters being "wired for sound", as in "having wiring installed for the purpose of playing talking pictures." Which I think means I've answered half of my own question.

The other half is, what was the original slang meaning of "wired for sound", such as in the song lyrics above? In that context, does it just mean "a bomb that explodes loudly," with a subtle positive connotation toward modern technology? or was there a more specific meaning that 1940s audiences would have picked up on?

I specifically think I might be missing something because I know vaguely that some bombs have wires attached and some bombs make sounds as they fall.

  • To me, the use of wired for sound is simply an expression that means built for noise. Just as in the case of the "newfangled talkies," so to in the case of the bomb—which is going to make a large noise. Or a baby that's "wired for sound" to keep you up at night . . . – Jason Bassford May 26 '18 at 0:19
  • Irving Berlin's reference is pretty straight forward. Acoustic triggers were one type of proximity fuse. "The British used a Rochelle salt microphone and a piezoelectric device to trigger a relay to detonate the projectile or bomb's explosive." – Phil Sweet May 26 '18 at 1:45
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    @Phil Sweet ...acoustic triggers did "wire for sound", but, were passive devices, and, most importantly, were extremely secret. any certain reference to such a device in a song would have had the song writer and performer in detention. – J. Taylor May 26 '18 at 9:01
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The question resolves most of its own issues.
Wiring motion picture theaters for sound had happened in the decade before WW2. That conversion was fresh in the minds of many.

What Irving Berlin might have meant about a bomb that's wired for sound was probably not much, except to get a rhyme with ground. Ariel bombs during WW2 were typically fin stabilized, with the air flowing over the fins creating something of a whistle. Falling bombs were not silent.
An additional wired for sound in WW2 was the German Stuka dive bomber. This plane itself was wired for sound. Anyone watching a sound newsreel might mistake the airplane's siren for its bomb. The notion of screaming death from above had been established by 1943.

This is a good question that mostly answers itself.

  • The question is if newsreels (+1) with sound prior to 1940 had 'bomb-sounding-bombs' in them (which isn't really ontopic here). Stukas came out in 1936... so I guess it's possible. [citation from <1940 needed] – Mazura May 25 '18 at 20:24
  • I heard an interview with a songwriter recently where smoke asked what some of his lyrics meant; the reply was, "they don't mean anything, it's a song." – user184130 May 25 '18 at 21:20
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    @Mazura ...I added some 1940 footage as a link for the Stuka. – J. Taylor May 25 '18 at 21:36
  • @James Random ......"they don't mean anything, it's a song."... that has always been my understanding. – J. Taylor May 25 '18 at 21:37
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I agree, it came from theaters. Thus, by the 1940s, lots of people would have understood that.

BTW, there is a fascinating little area of understanding how people conceptualized things and had phrases related to them before we had current technologies. For example, many severely paranoid schizophrenics believe that their thoughts can be read or altered by others through electromagnetic radiation, thus leading to putting foil around their heads to prevent it. It has a coinage now, 'tin-hat', meaning paranoid - like "isn't all that worrying you do about what Facebook does with your data getting awfully tin-hat?". But, in 1700, what did people with that sort of problem think or do, and what phrases have been lost describing them|?

  • In the past, unexplained aerial phenomena (or UFOs) were attributed to angels rather than aliens. So, hearing voices would probably have been attributed to demons (or gods) and so the equivalent of "tin[foil] hat" would probably have been some sort of religious imagery. – user184130 May 25 '18 at 21:22
  • I suggest this is all largely backwards and "wired for sound" does now and always has dealt with recording, not play-back… ie, the studio, not the theatre. – Robbie Goodwin May 25 '18 at 22:01
  • That is totally not an answer to the question at all, so I can't bring myself to upvote it; but you might enjoy en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_loom – Quuxplusone May 26 '18 at 17:15
  • @RobbieGoodwin: I initially assumed the same as you (something like "wired for sound" = "wearing a wire"), but Google Books proved me wrong. Follow the search links at the bottom of Ngram Viewer for my evidence. – Quuxplusone May 26 '18 at 17:20
  • Might we please remember, the first “talkie” feature film was The Jazz Singer, in 1927. Do you think if all those years later, anyone gave a rat’s whisker, his theatre would still be in business? – Robbie Goodwin May 26 '18 at 22:12

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