"Canal" vs. "Channel"


Canal: n. An artificial waterway or artificially improved river used for travel, shipping, or irrigation.

Channel: n. Electronics A specified frequency band for the transmission and reception of electromagnetic signals, as for television signals.

Italian language does not have two words with the meanings above, but it has only one: "canale".

Is there a historical reason why English language uses "channel", and not "canal" in reference to television signals?


Posted 2013-03-08T08:44:16.843


Question was closed 2013-03-10T01:26:31.887

blame the French

– mcalex – 2013-03-08T09:49:00.603

3English uses channel to describe navigable waterways, too (such as the English Channel). – J.R. – 2013-03-08T10:05:48.923

Since we often use channel to mean a specific part of a river or other body of water, I think it makes sense to also use channel to mean "a specific part of the spectrum". No idea on the historical reasons though. – FakeDIY – 2013-03-08T11:18:59.883


I think "Is there a historical reason why English language uses" is a phrase that should definitely classify your question for English Language and Usage, and not for ELL.

– SF. – 2013-03-08T12:00:00.330

1@SF. Not sure I agree in this case. It really wasn't hard to get at the reason (though it looks like my link mightn't've been noticed by commenters?) and I'd expect British English speakers at least to be aware of the influence of the French on the language. Maybe also because I interpreted 'historical reason' as 'root word', but I don't find this out of ELL's scope. Plus we don't close stuff quite as reflexively :-) – mcalex – 2013-03-08T12:16:47.600

1@mcalex: The basic difference between the sites is ELL asks "How" and ELU asks "Why". This is definitely a "Why" question. – SF. – 2013-03-08T12:22:10.880

1I concur with @mcalex. OP's question goes to distinguishing two words, which is definitely On Topic, and the history helps European learners understand why the senses are different. I know such narratives helped me learn French and German: in effect, they are mnemonics. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-03-08T12:33:09.307

Just out of curiosity @StoneyB, Should not it be me learning French and German in your last comment? – Mistu4u – 2013-03-08T12:39:13.817

1@Mistu4u No, it's helped me learn or helped me to learn. Helped me with learning or helped me in learning are also possible, but not frequent in this context; more likely are with (my) French (language/studies) or in (my) German (class/studies). – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-03-08T13:25:40.330



Both words go back to French, and from French back to Latin.

Channel is the older word and represents the ordinary phonological development from Latin canalis to Old French - compare Latin canis and French chien. Its primary sense, then as now, was the ‘bed’ in which water runs: a river, or larger body such as the English Channel. From that the word was extended to tubes and pipes and gutters in which water runs, and to similarly formed grooves, and eventually to metaphoric uses such as ‘diplomatic’ ‘channels of communication’. This last use is the origin of channel for specific frequencies of broadcast signal.

The French ‘readopted’ the Latin word in the 16th century as canal for various scientific and technological uses, and English ‘reborrowed’ it for the same purposes; this was the beginning of the age of international scientific discourse, and French was then the leading language for that purpose. One of the new uses was for an artificial watercourse; and when canals began to be dug as great public projects, it became in English the primary sense of that word.

StoneyB on hiatus

Posted 2013-03-08T08:44:16.843

Reputation: 176 469

I think the phenomenon (of two words with same origin that specialize in different ways) is not unique and there should be a name for this in linguistics. – Theta30 – 2013-03-09T16:20:42.467

@Theta30 There is a name: cognate, 'having the same birth'. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-03-09T16:27:07.913