Q&A: “Laser” vs “lazer”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're laser focused…

Q: Hi AWC, which is the correct spelling? “Laser” or “lazer”? Or is it an English vs American thing?

A: Haha, you put “laser” in quotation marks!

Q: Yes, so what?

A: It’s just like Dr Evil in this scene.

Q: So it is. But am I right about America using the “Z” – like they do in “realize” or “organize”?

A: We don’t mean to “patronize” you, but no. It has nothing to do with that. In fact, this one is as clear cut as a, um, a laser.

Q: Why?

A: Because it’s an acronym! “Laser” was coined in the late 1950s by American physicists, standing for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”. It entered the dictionaries in 1960 and went on to become so mainstream that it lost the capital letters you often associate with acronyms. “Scuba” (self contained underwater breathing apparatus – anyone old enough to get the Family Ties reference on this one?) is a similar example.

Q: I’m pretty sure you can’t remove hair as effectively with scuba equipment.

A: No, we meant similar in the lowercase acronym sense.

Q: Ah, that makes more sense. 

A: What many people may not know is that “laser” was actually based on ANOTHER acronym that had been coined just a few years earlier – in 1955.

Q: What was that one?

A: “Maser”.

Q: Maser?

A: Yeah, “microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”. 

Q: Like, for reheating leftovers?

A: Well that’s the microwave oven. But actual microwaves are electromagnetic waves that sit on the spectrum between longer radio waves and shorter infrared radiation. 

Q: Hey, my cousin Mikey also sits on the spectrum!

A: Anyway, microwaves are very important to science.

Q: And to making popcorn. 

A: Yes, okay sure. And it was the “maser” that led the way for the structure of the acronym “laser”. Not many people know about the word maser – but are familiar with its use in modern technology. Meanwhile, the visible “laser” was helped into the mainstream by science fiction movies–

Q: Pew pew pew!

A: Yes, that’s the one. And also inventions like the laser disc. Of course, lasers also played a part in CD and DVD players, along with countless other uses in medicine, industrial, military, communications and even the bar code scanner at your local supermarket.

Q: Bleep bleep bleep!

A: That’s the one.

Q: Also don’t forget about laser pointers – they’re great for teasing cats and airline pilots.

A: Well anyway, “lazer” is simply a misspelling of the acronym “laser”. One theory on why some people think it’s legit could be the overuse of the letter “Z” in naming technological devices.

Q: So not even the sailboat or the car were spelt with a Z?

A: Nope. The Ford Laser was a car sold in this part of the world between 1981 and 2007. Meanwhile, the Olympic sailing class of boat named “Laser” was invented by a Canadian in 1970. Curiously, there WAS a Canadian-imported Panther “Lazer” car in the 1970s – with a Z – but only one of those was ever sold.

Q: The laser disc of cars!

A: Haha, yeah.

Q: So to recap, if you see the spelling “lazer” anywhere when referring to the light-emitting, hair-removing, barcode scanning, Dr Evil-destroying-the-world stuff, then it’s wrong, yeah?

A: Exactly. By the way, we’re lucky that “maser” set the stage for the name. 

Q: Why?

A: Because the original term considered for it was “optical pumping”.

Q: Ouch. Not nearly as catchy. Pew pew pew!

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