The colloquial (and mostly archaic) term "television set" invokes a narrow use of set (noun). Merriam-Webster defines this as:

(22) an apparatus of electronic components assembled so as to function as a unit

(With "television set" being the only example)

The Cambridge Dictionary offers an even more narrow definition, where set has the specific meaning of "television set".

I am wondering what the etymology of this term is here, and I have a guess: I believe that because televisions--and radios before them-- were constructed principally using a set of vacuum tubes that the set is a sort of metonym.

"Radio set" is easily found as a common term in historic text back when radios were larger standalone devices, or in the context of CB or ham radio, both of which grew from vacuum-tube-based equipment.

And I observe that contra the Merriam-Webster definition, no other kind of "apparatus" I can think of gets this shorthand. We don't speak of a toaster set or a dishwasher set or a personal computer set. The only examples I know of are devices that originated with sets of vacuum tubes.

Maybe I'm overthinking this. Can anyone enlighten the tracing of etymology there? Why are (were) televisions known as television sets?

  • 2
    It might mean a set of objects. Early telegraph sets and wireless sets were often a collection of electrical items mounted on a wooden board, so the term set is used in the same sense as Meccano Set (or Erector Set), i.e. a collection of objects that can be assembled or arranged in some fashion.
    – Mick
    Commented May 13, 2021 at 22:56
  • "Television set" might have gone out of use almost completely but generator set is very much alive and well in industrial settings. The link takes you to the Cat site where current models are listed. This Wkipedia page gives the reason for its being called a 'set': which is that it consists of a combination of generator, motor, control system and other ancillary items without which the generator will not perform its function.
    – BoldBen
    Commented May 13, 2021 at 23:59
  • 1
    Consider that the original television set consisted of a receiver, a sound system, and a display system. They worked together as a "set".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 14, 2021 at 0:31
  • Also stereo set.
    – Xanne
    Commented May 14, 2021 at 3:19
  • And set-top box. Commented May 14, 2021 at 7:30

1 Answer 1


No, it's not tubes. I'm answering my own question since I unexpectedly found the definition in the older OED I have access to. Non-tube "apparatuses" used to get the term as well, including telegraph sets. Here's the definition given:

A piece of electrical or electronic apparatus, as a telephone, a telegraph receiver or transmitter, a radio or television receiver, etc. Also a radar transmitter and receiver. Cf. HANDSET

Adding to Mick's comment on the question above, it seems from the citations given (starting in 1891) that this is probably a shift of meaning from the notion of a collection of items mounted together. Eventually, all of the devices besides the television went out of use, leaving us with the vestigial "television set" until not long ago.

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