five by five

Often in old war movies you’ll hear a radio operator say, “I read you five-by-five.” What does this mean?

The operator in question is ranking the voice transmission on a scale of one to five in two categories, strength and clarity. So, five-by-five is loud and clear and one-by-one would be weak and unintelligible. From Evan Hunter’s 1954 Blackboard Jungle:

“All right, testing, one-two-three-four."..."Five by five, Mr. Halloran!”

By the 1980s, it had acquired a general slang sense of okay, fine. From Rick Eilert’s 1983 For Self and Country:

“I hope everything’s all right.”
“Yeah, everything is five by five.”1

1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 757.

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