Laser - Terminology


The word laser started as an acronym for "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation"; in modern usage "light" broadly denotes electromagnetic radiation of any frequency, not only visible light, hence infrared laser, ultraviolet laser, X-ray laser, and so on. Because the microwave predecessor of the laser, the maser, was developed first, devices of this sort operating at microwave and radio frequencies are referred to as "masers" rather than "microwave lasers" or "radio lasers". In the early technical literature, especially at Bell Telephone Laboratories, the laser was called an optical maser; this term is now obsolete.

A laser which produces light by itself is technically an optical oscillator rather than an optical amplifier as suggested by the acronym. It has been humorously noted that the acronym LOSER, for "light oscillation by stimulated emission of radiation," would have been more correct. With the widespread use of the original acronym as a common noun, actual optical amplifiers have come to be referred to as "laser amplifiers", notwithstanding the apparent redundancy in that designation.

The back-formed verb to lase is frequently used in the field, meaning "to produce laser light," especially in reference to the gain medium of a laser; when a laser is operating it is said to be "lasing." Further use of the words laser and maser in an extended sense, not referring to laser technology or devices, can be seen in usages such as astrophysical maser and atom laser.

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