The term "radio" is derived from the Latin word "radius", meaning "spoke of a wheel, beam of light, ray". It was first applied to communications in 1881 when, at the suggestion of French scientist Ernest Mercadier, Alexander Graham Bell adopted "radiophone" (meaning "radiated sound") as an alternate name for his photophone optical transmission system. However, this invention would not be widely adopted.
Following Heinrich Hertz's establishment of the existence of electromagnetic radiation in the late 1880s, a variety of terms were initially used for the phenomenon, with early descriptions of the radiation itself including "Hertzian waves", "electric waves", and "ether waves", while phrases describing its use in communications included "spark telegraphy", "space telegraphy", "aerography" and, eventually and most commonly, "wireless telegraphy". However, "wireless" included a broad variety of related electronic technologies, including electrostatic induction, electromagnetic induction and aquatic and earth conduction, so there was a need for a more precise term referring exclusively to electromagnetic radiation.
The first use of radio- in conjunction with electromagnetic radiation appears to have been by French physicist Édouard Branly, who in 1890 developed a version of a coherer receiver he called a radio-conducteur. The radio- prefix was later used to form additional descriptive compound and hyphenated words, especially in Europe. For example, in early 1898 the British publication The Practical Engineer included a reference to "the radiotelegraph" and "radiotelegraphy", while the French text of both the 1903 and 1906 Berlin Radiotelegraphic Conventions includes the phrases radiotélégraphique and radiotélégrammes.
The use of "radio" as a standalone word dates back to at least December 30, 1904, when instructions issued by the British Post Office for transmitting telegrams specified that "The word 'Radio'... is sent in the Service Instructions". This practice was universally adopted, and the word "radio" introduced internationally, by the 1906 Berlin Radiotelegraphic Convention, which included a Service Regulation specifying that "Radiotelegrams shall show in the preamble that the service is 'Radio'".
The switch to "radio" in place of "wireless" took place slowly and unevenly in the English-speaking world. Lee de Forest helped popularize the new word in the United States—in early 1907 he founded the DeForest Radio Telephone Company, and his letter in the June 22, 1907 Electrical World about the need for legal restrictions warned that "Radio chaos will certainly be the result until such stringent regulation is enforced". The United States Navy would also play a role. Although its translation of the 1906 Berlin Convention used the terms "wireless telegraph" and "wireless telegram", by 1912 it began to promote the use of "radio" instead. The term started to become preferred by the general public in the 1920s with the introduction of broadcasting. ("Broadcasting" is based upon an agricultural term meaning roughly "scattering seeds widely".) British Commonwealth countries continued to commonly use the term "wireless" until the mid-20th century, though the magazine of the British Broadcasting Corporation in the UK has been called Radio Times since its founding in the early 1920s.
In recent years the more general term "wireless" has gained renewed popularity, even for devices using electromagnetic radiation, through the rapid growth of short-range computer networking, e.g., Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN), Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth, as well as mobile telephony, e.g., GSM and UMTS cell phones. Today, the term "radio" specifies the transceiver device or chip, whereas "wireless" refers to the lack of physical connections; thus equipment employs embedded radio transceivers, but operates as wireless devices over wireless sensor networks.