One of my favorite pieces of technology is the Delphi MyFi portable satellite radio. My wife bought it for me some six years ago and I consider the $12 per month I pay for the service to be money extremely well spent. I have it mounted in my car so I listen to it on a daily basis, which is why it turns out to have been such great value.
When I think about it, I’ve been a regular radio listener for many years. I can remember as a kid hiding under the bed covers late at night with a small transistor radio and an even smaller earplug listening to such subversive stations as Radio Luxembourg and Radio Caroline, the latter broadcasting illegally from a ship moored of the south-east of England. Even earlier, I recall – albeit vaguely – listening to my grandma’s old valve radio that had short wave, spending hours twiddling with the huge dial to tune in to hissing, distant crackly voices and martial music. At college, I had a portable radio that also included short wave reception, and when I got my first job that involved travelling, I bought a Grundig World Traveler and which became a constant companion.
So it’s not surprising that although the technology has changed from short waves to satellite signals, I still tune in to the BBC World Service to keep abreast of things that are happening globally. Sure, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox dominate the TV but radio reporting is a qualitatively different thing altogether. This is why two days ago I found myself tuning in to XM 131 for an eclectic selection of programming, and stumbling across the first in a series of documentary programs entitled Blind Man Roams the Globe.
The premise is that Peter White, a blind broadcaster, takes listeners on his trips across the world in such as way as to experience how he “sees” it – by listening. In the first episode, he goes to San Francisco accompanied, not unlike myself, by a pocket radio. What caught my ears was his description of this process:
“All I need when I’m traveling is my little tranny.”
Now, considering he’s in San Francisco, my unashamedly wicked sense of humor couldn’t avoid wondering what would happen if Peter were to go shopping to replace his radio and ask someone where he could find himself “a cheap little tranny.”
The word tranny appeared in the late 60’s as an abbreviation for the then-new transistor radios. The process of cutting off the end of a word is called apocope (pronounced a-PO-cuh-pih) and is a common phenomenon. Transistor itself is a blend of transfer and resistor, which describes the basic physics of the device. Once the transistor radio had become a popular consumer item, it was somewhat inevitable that it would take on some sort of colloquial diminutive, just as the television set became the telly in the UK and TV in the US. From the 70’s on, tranny became the popular name for the radio.
It wasn’t until the 1980’s that the same word became slang for a transvestite, but it is the same process of lopping off the end that underlies its origin. Compare this with the late 70’s meaning of tranny as being a photographic transparency.
We therefore have the following list that summarizes the relatively sudden development of three meanings for one slang term:
- 1969: tranny – shortened form of transistor radio
- 1979: tranny – shortened form of photographic transparency
- 1983: tranny – shortened version of transvestite
The tran- element is a Latin prefix meaning “across,” with all of the abbreviated words deriving from this root but adding different endings. Transfer ends with Latin ferre = to bear or carry; transparency ends with Latin parere = to appear or become visible; and transvestite ends with Latin vestire = to clothe.
The written form trannie will also be found for the different meanings of the word but seems to be more often used for transvestites and not radios.
Oh, and in a politically incorrect coincidence, the show was still running as I reached my office and turned off the engine, only to reach over and pick up a box of tissues with the brand name of Puffs®. There’s a whole Coen brothers comedy waiting to be written around a blind man in San Francisco asking “Where can I find a cheap little tranny and some Puffs®?”
Hey, I don’t invent the connotations, I just analyze them!