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It's stated (here, for example) that "The Idiot's Lantern" was suggested as the title of this episode by Gareth Roberts, who recalled his father using the term to refer to television. (Roberts has written DW screenplays, even if this particular one was written by Mark Gatiss.)

Nowadays the phrase isn't common at all. Indeed when they're fed it, websearch engines mostly serve up references to the Doctor Who episode, which was first broadcast in 2006.

I came across it in Anthony Burgess's book A Mouthful of Air (1992).

There's also a reference in Bernard Rosenberg and David White's book Mass Culture Revisited (1971). They refer to its use in the early 1950s by "British intellectuals" who were "battling against the introduction of commercial TV". (Their own opinion is that the epithet was "unmerited".)

In Britain, commercial TV was introduced in 1955.

What are the origins and history of this phrase?

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    97% of this question should be deleted and posted as a self-answer.
    – Valorum
    Oct 21, 2023 at 23:00
  • It's basically a bright thing that idiots stare at. From the second half of the 20th century, it's a television set (starting with commercials and politics). So you have it all in your post, there's no more to say :)
    – OldPadawan
    Oct 22, 2023 at 4:59
  • Google books has basically zero references prior to 1956, then an explosion of references thereafter; google.com/…
    – Valorum
    Oct 22, 2023 at 8:43
  • I originally misread this as when was the 'first usage' of such a term, but yes, the origin is obvious, always has been. Oct 22, 2023 at 12:43
  • By origin I mean the story of its first usage and early spread. Its meaning and the overall reason for its usage are indeed obvious. Apologies for lack of clarity. I will edit the title.
    – tell
    Oct 22, 2023 at 19:33

1 Answer 1

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As Wikipedia suggests,

The title of the [Doctor Who] episode was suggested by writer Gareth Roberts, who recalled the term being used by his father to refer to television.

This is corroborated by Wiktionary, which defines it as:

(UK) A television set.

It's synonymous to "idiot's box", which some might be more familiar with.

As for its origin, this article mentions how it was used to refer to the medium "after the second World War":

After the Second World War, the Age of Television began to emerge. While many politicians embraced the medium, the post war Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee disliked it, describing it as ‘an idiot’s lantern’ and he wanted as little to do with it as possible.

This is echoed in various other articles found online. 1,2 I have not been able to find even a vague date for this attribution, however. It is possible this has been around 1956, where Google Ngrams shows a clear peak in its occurrence in English-language texts (see more below).

Funnily, the search so far is paralleled by that of Paul Laxton in his book 'Growing up in the Age of Affluence': 3

Preview of first page of chapter 'The Idiot's Lantern' in the aforementioned book
Click for larger version

Google Ngrams shows its first use(s) in 1937, but only in 1956 again after it (when PM Attlee used it?). That first occurrence might have referred to something else entirely, but, since the BBC was established in 1936, when "regular television broadcasts in the United Kingdom started",4 it likely was used for the first time in that or the following year already, which would mean it originated before Clement Attlee used it publicly. seems to have been a fluke, as pointed out by Valorum in a comment.

(Going through the source material for the n-gram graph, there is an earlier instance of the word found in 1946, that does not show up in the graph, but, like the 1937 instance, this again might be wrongly attributed; at least, there is barely any information on that publication. Besides, here we're dealing with this kind of bad date checking.)

By whom or where this first registered use was coined I cannot seem to find, though.


  1. Daily Mail, 18.09.2021
  2. The Saint, 10.10.2018, p.31
  3. Google Books
  4. Television in the United Kingdom, article on Wikipedia
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    I consider the title of a cultural product assigned to it by its producers to be part of it. Thx for this answer. Re. the Laxton quote, a more exact source for the 1950 Attlee ref in the Guardian would be useful. I'm wondering whether 1st use in ref to TV may have been by Attlee (or whoever wrote his speech or otherwise prepped him). Interesting if so. (Also re. Laxton: this is the 1st time I've heard the "urban myth" that it was Churchill who closed down BBC TV at the outbreak of WW2. It wasn't Churchill, but the shutdown did occur.) Edit: I've now looked at the 1937 ref & edited accordingly.
    – tell
    Oct 22, 2023 at 19:54
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    @Valorum. Yes. My edit to this answer accordingly was removed. The paragraph citing Google's Ngram service as giving a 1937 reference should be taken out. Google is wrong.
    – tell
    Oct 23, 2023 at 10:03
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    @tell - Correcting someone's dates and times is fine, but entirely removing 'wrong' information out of someone's answer is a bit far over the line
    – Valorum
    Oct 23, 2023 at 10:04
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    @Valorum and tell: I changed it, thanks! Google Ngrams actually seems quite useless for more in-depth research: of the few sources I checked based on the 1956 and 1957 occurrences of the phrase some were incorrectly titled, and more were incorrectly dated (see this, for instance). Everything Google has been declining for years now, so it doesn't surprise me.
    – Joachim
    Oct 23, 2023 at 10:41
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    The citation from 1946 mentions 'BSB' and 'Channel 4' , so it's unlikely to be accurately dated either, since neither existed until decades afterwards.
    – Valorum
    Oct 23, 2023 at 13:06

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