Hams talk funny, you say. They use strange words and jargon.
They say such things as; "You're
five by nine here, Old Man." And,
"Please QSL via the bureau."
"Old Man?" Wouldn't you be insulted if someone called you an
old man, especially if you're still in your twenties or thirties?
What does all this mean? What are those things called Q
signals? Why the jargon?
Practically any hobby or avocation has its own language or jargon;
special words and phrases which are known primarily to those within
the culture of that hobby or activity. Ham radio is hardly an
exception. I'll try to explain a few of the common words, phrases
and symbols which are so much a part of ham radio language. I'll
also explain why I feel - for the benefit of those active hams
who may chance to read this page, and for prospective and beginning
hams - that jargon is sometimes overdone and more often than not
could be curtailed in favor of plain common language in communications.
A little history lesson here. Note, if you will, that before
the days of radio communications, and even before the days of
the telephone, land line telegraphy carried all electric messages.
Wires strung from point to point, between towns and between military
outposts and between railway stations carried messages consisting
of on and off sounds. Those sounds combined to form
words which the telegraph operators knew and understood.
Here is a brief explanation of this method of sound communications.
The sound is on for a short period of time and then it is off.
The short on period is called a DOT.
When the sound is on for a longer period of time, that's called
a DASH. The off time between
a dot and a dash is called (guess what!), a SPACE.
Letters, numbers and punctuation marks were represented by known
combinations of dots and dashes, separated of course, by spaces.
This is, guess what. You knew it! MORSE
Since lengthy messages in Morse code had to be sent, one character,
one word at a time by this method, it stood to reason that shortcuts
would come into common use. Why spell out the whole word if by
sending a known "shortcut", you could get the message across with
fewer dots and dashes?
Many of the current "shortcuts" we use today, had their origins
in those early days. More have been added as time has passed.
The reasons for their use are still the same today. That is, if
we are using the same mode of transmission - Morse code.
The term "Morse code" is not commonly used today when referring
to the actual use of it for radio communications. Did that make
sense? I didn't think so... We now refer to radio communication
using the Morse code as CONTINUOUS WAVE
or CW for short. What does
"continuous wave" mean?" The term dates back to the method the
very earliest radio transmitters generated radio frequency power.
The power output of the transmitter is always of the same amplitude
(level, amount - what ever you want to call it). It is continuous.
That's the opposite to voice transmission where the amplitude
of the transmitter power output varies in relationship to the
"voice" applied to it. That's called "modulation," Ok, this paragraph
may be a little confusing to the non-technically savvy. If it
is, don't worry about it now.
The technical meaning has become somewhat blurred today with
different modulation methods now more common, but the term CW
still refers to a transmitter that is keyed in an on and off fashion
sending Morse Code signals. We won't get more technical than that....
It's not important for this explanation.
As radio became more popular and common for communications, another
form of shortcut came into practice. That consisted of a list
of "codes" called Q signals.
These are three letter combinations beginning with the letter
"Q" represented specific ideas. The use of these codes shortened
and made clearer the meanings of long distance radio communications.
This was often a necessity, as it is still, due to the sometimes
uncertain nature of radio propagation. The communications link
might be lost before the entire message is delivered. It was (and
is) important to get the message across before the contact is
lost. At this point, if you have uncertainties about radio, you're
probably asking, "if radio communication
is such a fickle process, why use it at all?" Why not just use
the Internet, or the telephone, for that matter?" That's
a fair question. It gets to the heart of "Why" we
participate in this hobby. I'll try to answer that, as best I
can. Later.... Back to the jargon.
There is good argument for using shortcuts and jargon. Sometimes.
Take the communications mode we referred to above - CW. Since
communications by that mode consists of sending letters one at
a time, whatever shortening we can do will certainly reduce the
number of dots and dashes, and thus allow for more information
to be sent in a shorter time period. It will also help insure
accurate reception of our transmitted ideas. For example the following
might be a typical CW exchange between a couple of hams.
"I copied your last transmission just
fine. My name is Dan, and I live in Bedford, Texas. Your signal
here is very readable. It is very strong, and the tone is pure
(free of AC hum so common in early transmitters)."
That's a lot of dots and dashes to send! Now consider the following
"R Name is Dan QTH is Bedford Texas
Ur RST is 599."
The "R" is shortcut for "I copied your last transmission just
fine." Extraneous letters and punctuation can be eliminated to
shorten the message. "QTH" means "my location is" or "I am in"
or "I live in," (or we could add) "My QTH is" - but
that's not necessary. The other station knows what you mean just
from the three letters. The RST signal reporting system using
numbers to indicate how readable the signal is, the strength,
and the quality of the tone. I won't go further into detail on
this. It's just another example of a shortcut and tells the other
operator how well you are receiving his signal. Some words are
themselves shortened. The "ur" of course is short for "your".
There are equivalents for voice operation. By the way, though
I capitalized the first word of each sentence in the shortcut
example, in actuality, there is no "case" in CW or Morse
Where I think we get carried away with the use of shortcuts and
jargon is in phone (voice) operation. Even in voice communications,
some shortcuts, especially the Q signals are commonly used. There
are good justifications for some shortcuts and common terminology
under certain conditions. Those might be during contests, message
handling (traffic handling) and when in contact with foreign stations
where English may not be as easily understood, and accents may
get in the way of good comprehension. I think other than in those
situations, plain conversational English is more in order. Some
common shortcuts, especially the Q signals are still appropriate
- if not overused. Some word and phrase usage is just plain silly
however. Jargon if used effectively should not draw embarrassing
attention to itself. It should not distract from the communication
Oh, by the way, referring back to the opening paragraph "You're
five by nine here, Old Man." "5 by 9, or simply "59"
is the voice equivalent of the RST example given above.
The term "Old Man" is one of those long standing traditions.
It has no relationship to the actual age of the operator, and
is never taken as an insult.
"Please QSL via the bureau" means
send me one of your QSL cards and use the QSL Bureau (a forwarding
service) to route it to me. This particularly applies to foreign
By the way, what are QSL cards? Those are very much like post
cards from a visitor to an exotic vacation destination, who sends
them to for one reason. Proof that he or she has actually been
there - see the postmark and the picture of the locale? - and
as souvenirs of the visit. A QSL card is personalized for the
sender. His or her call letters as well as address, city and state
and other geographical information will be present. Often it will
display a colorful picture or graphic of some sort. It may in
fact, display a photo of the ham operator and his radio setup.
It will also display information about the two way radio contact
between the two radio operators. That information contains the
date and time of the contact, the frequency, mode (voice, CW,
digital, etc.), signal report, and other information pertinent
to the contact. Why? It's written and "legal" proof of the two
way contact between the two stations.
There are many awards and certificates available for various
operating events, such as making contact with all states, or all
continents, or a certain number of foreign countries, for example.
Generally these awards are difficult to achieve - requiring a
lot of effort and as such are valued highly by those striving
for them. Think of them as trophies such as are earned for sporting
events. QSL cards are the legal proof of the contacts and are
required by the awards issuing bodies.