The etymology of the word "traffic light"


Some languages are very creative with their term for those red/green thingies that control (or at least try to control) the flow of vehicular traffic.

Language term
US English traffic light
South African English robot
Swedish trafikljus (lit: traffic light)
German Ampel
Mandarin Chinese 紅綠燈 hóng lyù dēng (lit: red green light)

Swedish proves the least surprising in this respect (from a US English point of view), using the same term as US English. South African English is the funniest with their "robot". (It makes sense in its own way: It's a device that replaces a policeman directing traffic.) In my experience, South African English is full of cute little words like this. I imagine that Germans find Swiss German similarly quaint.

The German word "Ampel" has the most interesting history of the set. It originally entered the German language as "ampulla", an urn filled with paraffin and used as a lamp (cognate to English "amphora"). You can easily imagine how this word gradually evolved into the term for a traffic signal.

The Mandarin Chinese term for traffic light is to me quite enlightening as well. The Taiwanese term for traffic light is "hòng lí dūn", and I assumed it was just a made-up word unconnected with any other words. (In the same way that the English word "elephant" just is; it's not built out of other English words like "ele" and "phant".) Since the Taiwanese words for "red", "green" and "light" are nothing like the Mandarin Chinese words, I was unable to make the connection. Now I see its etymology and it makes sense.

Unfortunately, I haven't been making the progress that I'd have liked on Mandarin. Even though my meager knowledge of Taiwanese should've given me a head start (since about 80% of Taiwanese words are to varying degrees cognate with Mandarin Chinese), it doesn't help with the grammar at all because I don't understand Taiwanese grammar consciously. The words just make sense and I don't know why.

Which is too bad because the grammatical structure of Mandarin Chinese is radically different from that of Germanic languages, with which I have had a long-time fascination.

Comments (62)
  1. mb says:

    In Italian we use "semaforo". Yes, it’s less funny than "robot."

  2. Marco Schramp says:

    In dutch we have two words. Officially it’s refered to as "verkeerslicht" (litterally: traffic light) and not that interesting. But in the common speaking language the word "stoplicht" is used. Apparently traffic lights are not associated with the fact that you can go sometimes.

  3. In dutch it’s "stoplicht". Literally: "stoplight".

  4. Miles Archer says:

    Dutch people – It’s stoplight as well as traffic light in the US too.

    Mb, semaphore makes sense to some extent too.

  5. waleri says:

    Isn’t "amphora" a greek word?

  6. I moved here to Cape Town, South Africa about four years ago from London and I too found robot highly amusing. Especially at first when driving along an unfamiliar street and seeing the warning ‘ROBOT’ painted in large white text on the road.

    Of course not only do traffic lights replace a policeman (except when they don’t work) but they also actually qualify as robots by many of the more general definitions…

  7. Ryan says:

    In Japanese the light for "go" is considered "blue" instead of "green".

  8. A. Skrobov says:

    In Russian, it’s called "svetofor". "Semafor" was used for the railroad thingy with raising/lowering arm, and "svetofor" is a rip off it ("svet"="light")

    OK, now I guess each and every one here will add the etymology for his favorite language… Perhaps that’s not too bad :-)

    waleri: "amphora" is an English word with Greek origin. "ampulla" is a Latin diminutive of the same Greek word.

  9. In Russian, there’s the word "семафор" (semafor), too. However, it is only used for those railroad traffic lights. Which is obviously a legacy issue (cf. English "semaphore").

    The normal traffic lights, however, are called "светофор" (swetofor), which is an even stranger word. It’s basically "semafor" with the first root replaced by "swet", which is Russian for "light".

    Now, if you look it up at

    http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=semaphore

    they’ll tell you that "semaphore" originates from the Greek "sema" (sign, signal) + "pherein" (to carry).

    Hence, the Russian "swetofor" means "the bearer of light".

    That’s actually funny. Thanks, Raymond, for making me investigate this one. I always suspected this blog would be good for something :-)

  10. Adam says:

    Across US I’ve only heard "light"

    While the power was out the lights were all blinking red downtown.

    Take a left a the light.

    The lights on that street take extra long.

    I got a ticket for running the light.

    "traffic light" is probably the proper term

  11. chcheese says:

    In parts of the US state of Wisconsin it’s known as a "stop and go light".

  12. Dan B says:

    Hi everyone,

    In Romanian is "SEMAFOR". If I am not mistaken the other 4 latin countries of Europe must have a similar word (I know Italian is Semaforo, thanks to mb :-)).

    Cheers

  13. Leonardo says:

    In Brazilian Portuguese the most commonly used word is "semáforo", equivalent to the English "semaphore" obviously.

    But in my state (Rio Grande do Sul) we rarely use "semáforo". "Sinaleira" is the most common word. Sinaleira = individual who does/make signs.

  14. kalleboo says:

    Here in Sweden you more commonly say "rödljus" (lit. red light) than "trafikljus" (traffic lights). Don’t ask me why.

  15. bramster says:

    It’s more fun in North-American English.

    if Traffic’s light

    don’t need a traffic light.

  16. Centaur says:

    @Alexander Evstiougov

    > Hence, the Russian "swetofor" means "the bearer of light".

    So it does. And now let’s translate it into Latin and we get… Lucifer!

  17. panda says:

    Officially Chinese Mandarin called "Traffic Light" as "交通灯", literally "Traffic Light".

  18. po says:

    In french, it’s "Three-coloured lights" (<i>Feux tricolores</i>)

  19. Derek says:

    In Japanese, the word is "shingo" (信号). The "shin" part means "truth" or "communications," and "go" means "signal".

    > In Japanese the light for "go" is considered "blue" instead of "green".

    To expand a little more on this, the word for "blue" in Japanese ("aoi") can also apply to green things, such as plants and green traffic lights. It can also apply to youth–if you are called aoi, that means you’re young or inexperienced.

  20. Ivan Leo says:

    We say traffic light in UK English too

  21. PatriotB says:

    chcheese said: "In parts of the US state of Wisconsin it’s known as a "stop and go light"."

    Hehehe. I’m born and raised in WI and I’ve always used the word "stoplight." Then I saw your comment and laughed; my aunt always says stop and go light.

  22. Mike Dunn says:

    In French, I’ve always just used "feu" – which is a funny word when you first learn it because "feu" also means "fire".

  23. Chris says:

    I believe the French word for bulb is ampoule.

  24. B.Y. says:

    By Taiwanese, do you mean 闽南话? I thought the official language of Taiwan is Mandarin Chinese.

  25. domovoi says:

    I think he means the Taiwanese dialect (台語).

  26. Zahical says:

    Just my 2 стотинки (2pence).

    In Bulgarian it’s ‘светофар’ (which is actually very similar to the Russian word, which is not very surprising giving the fact that they are both Slavonic languages).

    The same goes for ‘семафор’ (used only for rail-road lights).

  27. Neil T. says:

    Colloquially in the UK they’re known as traffic lights, like in the US, but officially they’re ‘traffic signals’.

  28. Guido D. says:

    In Argentina we use "semaforo" as well, which I think is also used in all the other spanish speaking countries.

  29. Kzinti says:

    In French-Canadian, the proper term is "Feux de circulations" which literally translates to "Traffic fires". In every day speak (when in context) you just use the shorthand version: "les feux" or "les lumieres" which stands for "the lights".

    I’ve never heard "feux tricolores", that must be a "real" French thing.

  30. Jerry Pisk says:

    Czech uninterestingly uses ‘semafor’ (semaphor) or ‘svetla’ (lights, almost always used in plural) for traffic lights. There is a different word for mechanical railroad semaphores (but not light based ones afaik).

    What struck me as interesting is the similarity in another word – greenhorn. Apparently in Japanese that is expressed as someone being blue/green, in Czech it is ‘zelenac’ which is again based on the color green. Any idea where that came from? Why is green considered the color of inexperience?

  31. Keith Moore says:

    In Polish, it is "sygnalizacja świetlna", which translates literally to "signal lamp".

    (The first letter of the second word is an ‘s’ with a diacritic mark above. I’m not hopeful it will get rendered correctly. This blog needs a "preview" button!)

  32. robdoyle says:

    Irish (Gaelic) is "soilse tráchta" – literally "traffic’s lights" or "lights of traffic."

    solas/soilse – light/lights

    trácht – traffic

    Two nouns placed together imply the genitive case, ‘an tuiseal ginideach’, the bane of Irish students across the country.

  33. In Spanish, same as Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and other latin languages it is Semáforo (Eng. semaphore).

    It comes from the old design where they had originally little mechanical red and green flags instead of lights, therefore akin to a semaphore signal as in the navy (same device was used for train signals).

  34. Phil Weber says:

    Raymond: By what means are you attempting to learn Mandarin?

    My wife attended a Chinese language school for children here in Portland: three hours every Saturday for nine months a year. She went for six years (grades 1 through 6) and learned to read, write and speak quite well (Traditional Chinese, though; the teacher was from Taiwan).

    I, however, was unwilling to sacrifice my weekends for nine months a year, so aside from one community college class, I have had no formal education. I’m wondering what you think is an effective method of self-education?

  35. Claw says:

    B.Y. wrote:

    > By Taiwanese, do you mean 闽南话? I thought the official language of Taiwan is Mandarin Chinese.

    domovoi wrote:

    > I think he means the Taiwanese dialect (台語).

    You’re both right. Taiwanese (台語 or 台灣話) is a dialect of Minnan (閩南話), also called 福建話 (Hokkien/Fujianese) since it’s the dominant language across the strait in Fujian, China. Minnan is one of the oldest branches of the Chinese language group, splitting off from most of the other Chinese languages over a thousand years ago.

  36. Import Fries says:

    I’ll add an obscure translation: in Frisian it’s stopljocht. I think. I’m not Frisian.

  37. Import Fries says:

    Or ferkearsljocht, even.

  38. Claw says:

    I should add that the official language of the government in Taiwan is Mandarin because the government was originally exiled from the mainland during the civil war that ended in 1949. Some of the natives of the island still try to preserve to their native Taiwanese though. However, the perception that one must know Mandarin in order to succeed has discouraged the use of the language in many places.

  39. "Why is green considered the color of inexperience?"

    To me the reason is obviously botanical. A young stem is green. Immature fruit and seeds are green.

    "I’m wondering what you think is an effective method of self-education?"

    Beats me. If you find one let me know!

    (Those who think Mandarin having four tones is bad should avoid Taiwanese with its seven tones that shift all over the place based on context: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taiwanese_%28linguistics%29#Tone_sandhi I am not familiar with the third major dialect spoken on the island, known as Hakka.)

  40. James Williams says:

    In my part of the South East United States, it’s often referred to as a "red light" as in, "Take a left when you get to the red light."

    Green and yellow are shunned for unknown reasons.

  41. The Kiwi says:

    Gas lantern "traffic lights" were first used in London in the 1860’s, whereas the modern version was invented in the 1920’s in Cleveland by Garrett Augustus Morgan, the son of former slaves:

    http://education.dot.gov/aboutmorgan.html

  42. Bob says:

    Here in South Africa, if you are travelling somewhere and get stopped at all the robots on the way there, you would give your excuse for being late as: "I was caught by the robots."

  43. Ofer says:

    Hebrew: רמזור (pronounced: Ram-Zor)

    It is made up of two words:

    רמז – Remez = hint

    אור – Or = light

    So, it is a light that hints.

  44. Xhargh says:

    kalleboo: It is probably called rödljus since a trafikljus is more or less unnoticable when its not red ;-)

    I think the official term in Swedish is trafikljus though.

  45. rb says:

    In Swiss German it’s Rotliecht, which means red light…

    Oh, and thanks for warning me with that robot thing. I learned most of my english in south africa and never thought, that robot is a local south african word…

  46. In my mother tongue Bangla (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bengali_language) its লাল-বাতি or red-light. Interesting since we are not annoyed by the other colors they have been omitted from the term.

    Incidentally Bangla or Bengali is spoken naively by 200 million people and is the fourth most widely spoken language after Mandarin, Spanish and English.

  47. Andreas says:

    BTW, the official german word for it is "Wechsellichtsignal" (changing light signal). But nobody ever uses that, everybody says Ampel.

  48. erlando says:

    In danish it’s either "trafiklys" (lit: traffic light) or the more often used "lyskurv" (lit: light basket)

  49. Alexey Kirpa says:

    In my country many native peoples use some expression in native (turkmen) language that could be translated as a "three eyes" :-)

  50. Raymond II says:

    Norwegian: Trafikklys (Bokmål)

    Norwegian: Trafikklys/Trafikkljos (Nynorsk)

  51. Richard says:

    Ivan Leo: We say traffic light in UK English too

    No, in the US they say "Traffic Light" too, afterall it was a British Invention.

  52. Donny says:

    Richard, read above.

    The modern traffic light was invented by an african american.

    The Poms (aka Limeys) only invented a system whereby a man manually rotated a coloured lantern. Do you really think they called that thing a "traffic light"!?!

  53. nikos says:

    in greece we call (slang) these things "epipla" (furniture) because although they exist, they are just standing there; most drivers don’t pay attention which color they are, they drive right through =)

    i belive italians have found a similar use for them lights, not sure about the moniker they use

  54. Martin says:

    I imagine that Germans find Swiss German similarly

    > quaint.

    While that is true, Dutch is generally even more funny to Germans. Probably because it’s slightly less related, but all words have a common origin. Through the change of languages over 500 years there are quite a lot of funny redefinitions of meanings.

  55. Nawak says:

    In French, "feu tricolore" (Three-coloured light/fire) is the official name (the one you learn when you learn to drive)

    But people call them "Feux rouges" (red lights/fires) or "Feux" (lights/fires)

  56. "I’m wondering what you think is an effective method of self-education?"

    Well, whatever one is fun.

    Reading this blog is a good example. You’d rather file it under "fun" than "education" (since the latter is a synonym for "boredom" for most people), yet you do learn a surprising amount of Swedish along the way. Or Russian, for that matter.

    Another fun approach I can recommend is to visit http://en.wiktionary.org on a regular basis and hit the "random page" link a few times. You’ll find some of the articles to be real gems.

    Of course, that’s my understanding of fun; yours might be different. But the bottom line is, take a road that’s fun to walk. Boredom is a bad teacher.

    I am learning Japanese by just surfing the Web, watching Japanese movies and listening to Aya Matsuura. (I’ve been told that playing Phantasy Star Online is an effective method, too). If you told me to attend a school instead, I’d rather resign.

    Schools are just boring to most people most of the time. Paul Graham wrote an excellent essay on the subject:

    http://www.paulgraham.com/hs.html

  57. oPossum says:

    Here in Elbonia we call them a Traffic Mutex, they are found at all Critical Intersections.

  58. Marcel says:

    Andreas: BTW, the official german word for it is "Wechsellichtsignal"

    Actually the word is "Wechsellichtzeichen", which basically means the same. But haven’t heard either word before, until 5 minutes ago, when I had a look at the actual law text!

  59. Yeah, German is quite famous for that kind of would-be technical wording which is never, ever actually used anywhere but in would-be official documents.

    It was only recently that Daimler (or was it BMW?) won a user documentation award because they finally replaced all that stupid "Fahrtrichtungsanzeiger" by "Blinker" in their user manuals.

    BTW: Duden lists both "Wechsellichtzeichen" and "Ampel", but I couldn’t find "Wechsellichtsignal".

  60. dmz says:

    Keith Moore wrote:

    > In Polish, it is "sygnalizacja świetlna", which translates literally to "signal lamp".

    Well, this is mainly the official name for trafic lights. Normally everybody calls them "światła" (lights).

  61. MandarinSpeaker says:

    It’s cool that you’re learning Mandarin, Raymond. A few people have asked what a good way to learn Mandarin is, and I have to say that unless you grew up speaking a tonal language (slightly more than half the world’s languages are tonal, so maybe that’s not too much to expect) you’ll really need immersion if you intend to be successful. (You mentioned you could speak Taiwainese, Raymond, so that certainly qualifies — the above was for the other people who asked.)

    Living here in China I meet a lot of people that studied Mandarin in school, and while they can read decently well and "know" a lot of words, they’re almost without exception completely incomprehensible, and in general, because they cannot hear the tonal differences well, they don’t understand much of what is said to them, either.

    Having said that, though, with a little immersion tones are really not difficult at all, especially with Mandarin. The reason is simple: Mandarin (which has a syllable structure far simpler than most Chinese languages) is so homophonic that without the extra information provided by the tone, understanding it is impossible. The result is that you learn to hear tones quickly, and once you can hear them, well, you realize what a retard you sound like when you futz them up. So the long and the short of it is, if you want to learn to speak Mandarin, move to China (or to San Francisco, which is sort of similar, :p)

    Someone here said that the official name for traffic lights in Mandarin was 交通灯, a term I’ve never heard before (I always say 红绿灯, often retroflexing the last syllable of the word out of habit). But my pinyin input method seems to know the term 交通灯 so I guess it must be a word.

    I speak French German and English and studied Japanese in school for several years, but Mandarin has been by far the most rewarding language to speak. It’s expressive in a way I’ve never experienced before. If you’re a native speaker of a European language, it will take you roughly twice as long to learn Mandarin as it would take you to learn something less exotic, but for me at least, the pain is worth it. I have a few tips for you.

    One: avoid pinyin (or any romanization system) like the plague, until you can speak a little bit. The reason is simple: it is tempting to learn words based on their pinyin spellings because the sounds of Mandarin will sound foreign and be difficult to remember when you first start, whereas letters are familiar and easy. Unfortunately, this will kill any hope you have of pronouncing Chinese properly before you even start. You will begin to pronounce Chinese syllables as if you were pronouncing the pinyin spelling in your native language. In actuality, the pinyin letters do not correspond to their English (or French, or German, or whatever) counterparts, but initially you will not know this. For example, neither p nor b in Mandarin is voiced, the distinction is a full aspiration contrast.

    Trust me on this one. Even with relatively competent foreign speakers, I find I can hear whether they learned using pinyin or Wade-Giles. That’s a bad sign.

    Two, practice religiously with a native speaker. Have them say a word. Repeat it. It will be wrong. Have them say it again, repeat it. Have them correct you. Do this with lots of different combinations of syllables for two or three months. It will be boring, but worth it, because you will be comprehensible when you speak.

    Once you have done this, learn pinyin. Not before.

    Three, don’t bother learning Chinese characters until you can speak Chinese. It’s a waste of time. Chinese characters are not "seperate" from the language and one character is *not* one word. As a result, you will end up learning a lot of characters and not know where to use them, or what they mean. You’re taxing your brain unnecessarily at this point. *Do* try to read characters, but don’t bother actively writing them or drilling them. Once you are a relatively proficient speaker, they are actually quite easy to learn because they aren’t as illogical as they first seem. Remember that Chinese children can already speak Chinese when they learn. It’s much easier that way.

    At this point in time, most Chinese people cannot tell that I am not a native speaker over the phone, and I can read a newspaper. It took me 3 years or so. I’m in my early twenties. That’s how I did it. YMMV.

  62. I’ve just found this excellent podcast on reddit:

    http://www.chinesepod.com/

    Enjoy.

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