This post made an interesting point about what would be understood when the word battery is used.

In the U.S. at least, the word battery is so rarely used outside the legal phrase assault and battery that a listener would be pretty much guaranteed to assume it meant an electrical battery unless it was specifically disambiguated by context.

This prompted me to see if there is a difference in the etymology of each words. According to Wiktionary, they both have the same origin, the Old French baterie, which means "the action of beating". So this prompted many questions: How did the meaning of the word evolve in one case to "A device that produces electricity by a chemical reaction between two substances."? When was it first used as such? Or is there a mistake in Wiktionary concerning the etymology of electrical battery?


2 Answers 2


Etymonline has this:

Meaning shifted in M.Fr. from "bombardment" ("heavy blows" upon city walls or fortresses) to "unit of artillery" (a sense recorded in English from 1550s). Extension to "electrical cell" (1748, first used by Ben Franklin) is perhaps via notion of "discharges" of electricity.

Wikipedia drops the "perhaps" and says:

The usage of "battery" to describe electrical devices dates to Benjamin Franklin, who in 1748 described multiple Leyden jars (early electrical capacitors) by analogy to a battery of cannons.[5]

That last link goes to About.com, where we read:

  • 1748 - Benjamin Franklin first coined the term "battery" to describe an array of charged glass plates.
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    Note that originally an electrical battery was made up of multiple cells: my father used to observe this distinction, and was known to object to referring to a single cell as a "battery".
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Dec 9, 2010 at 15:35
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    That's the link between a line of cannon and a line of cells making up a battery. Is the link between assault+battery and a cannon battery obvious?
    – mgb
    Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 15:21
  • I wonder if the habit of referring to a pitcher-catcher combination in baseball as the battery is also related to this sense of "a set" Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 15:29
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    @KateGregory Wikipedia Commented Nov 9, 2012 at 5:02
  • 1
    There are still a few of us old-timers around who object (very mildly) to referring to, say, a "C cell" as a "battery".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 22, 2018 at 16:23

The word batterie in French (and batteria in Italian) identify a sequence of identical objects. E.g. a batterie of cannons or a batterie of electrical cells.

The word came from the ancient Greek baktérion that means stick.

The "missing link" is the french verb battre. This verb is used to refer to hunting technique of battue. Imagine a sequence of men, each one with his stick, that walk aligned to pursuit the hunted animal and you'll understand the etymology of the word batterie.

It is not easy to track all the passage in the evolution of these words because them jumped forth and back from a language to another.

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    Do you have evidence for your "missing link"? I had supposed that, as at etymonline, the transfer was via artillery rather than via hunting.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Dec 9, 2010 at 15:37
  • Perhaps I was not clear in my answer, I agree with you. IMHO, the word "born" in hunting, then it extended to other fields (such as artillery or housewares) and, only in modern days, it migrated from artillery to "electrical cell".
    – andcoz
    Commented Dec 10, 2010 at 14:13
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    While I was searching for my old sources on the subject, I found a on cnrtl an alternate ipothesis: 1294 « ensemble des ustensiles en métal battu dont on se sert pour la cuisine » (Peage de Dijon, B.N. 1. 9873, fo 23 vo, Ibid. : Trousseaux de la batherie)
    – andcoz
    Commented Dec 10, 2010 at 14:14
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    It is correct that the English word comes from French battre "to beat". This comes from Latin battuere, and has nothing to do with Greek bakterion "staff". Where did you find that nonsense?
    – fdb
    Commented Feb 4, 2016 at 17:39

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