Black boxes, which are electronic recording devices placed inside airplanes to help investigate onboard accidents, are well known for actually being painted orange. So what gives? Before the term was used in aviation, black box referred to technological devices whose functions were not well understood by regular people. The Oxford English Dictionary lists attestations from the 1930s where it was used for complicated communication devices on naval ships. In the mid-1940s, that term became a slang word among Royal Air Force pilots for navigational devices that were quite literally black boxes, and in 1964 it first got applied to flight recorders. Soon thereafter, people realized that black was not the exactly the most easily identifiable color, so they began painting black boxes bright orange but kept the name, giving us our modern misnomer.
Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic, a junior studying government and linguistics at Harvard University, where I co-founded the Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Society. In addition to etymology, I also really enjoy trivia, politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, art history, and law.