There was a frisson of excitement in the cellular telephony market a few days ago with the launch of a new mobile phone called the Droid. As the owner of a very old Motorola® MOTOKRZR™ phone and tied to the Verizon network, this new technology could be the ersatz iPhone® I have been looking for.
So, over the unseasonably warm Ohio weekend, I took a trip out on my Triumph® motorcycle to the local Verizon store, where I was able to get my hands on this new smartphone. It is, as the marketing suggests, a pretty cool device and offers the same general features as Apple® iPhone, as well as access to new apps – even if there are currently fewer on offer than the iTunes® store.
The word droid is clearly a contraction of android, which the OED defines as “An automaton resembling a human being.” (OED, Vol. I, p.452.) However, the phone in no way, shape, or form resembles a human being – unless the human being under consideration has had a horrific accident in a car crushing machine.
So how has this change comes about?
The first mention of android is in Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopedia; or, an universal dictionary of arts and sciences, which was published between 1722 and 1751. Here, he says, “Albertus Magnus is recorded as having made a famous androides.”
By the mid-20th century, androids were also seen as being part human. The Spectator magazine on 19th September, 1958, said, “Today SF [science fiction – Ed.] must be more than a blood-and-sex day-dream spattered with words like android (robots made of flesh and bone).” This also marks the distinction between a robot (from the Czech word robota meaning “forced labor”) and android.
The use of the circumcised form, droid, appears to have originated in the first of the Star Wars series of movies back in 1977. Incidentally, this lopping off of the linguistic foreskin is called aphesis, from the Greek ἀπό for “away” andἵημι meaning “to send.” Cutting off the end of a word is apocope, from the Greek ἀποκόπτω, which means “cut off.”
This notion of Star Wars being the progenitor of droid is reinforced by the very recent filing for Droid as a trademark by Lucasfilm Ltd. They claim specifically that they want the mark reserved for;
“Wireless communications devices, including, mobile phones, cell phones, hand held devices and personal digital assistants, accessories and parts therefor, and related computer software and wireless telecommunications programs; mobile digital electronic devices for the sending and receiving of telephone calls, electronic mail, and other digital data, for use as a digital format audio player, and for use as a handheld computer, electronic organizer, electronic notepad, and digital camera; downloadable ring tones and screen savers; cameras, pagers and calling cards.”
I add all this information to highlight the fact that words can be very, very serious business. Many people think that etymologists (folks who are interested in word origins) are geeks who live in cloud cuckoo land. Not so. In fact, trademarking is an area of business where etymologists can be very useful folks to have around.
More interesting is that the filing comes now, just prior to the release of the Motorola Droid, which doesn’t appear with a trademark but is cited as being “under license from Lucasfilms Ltd.” The actual filing is dated October 9th, 2009, which looks suspiciously like a last-minute dash by the Lucas attorneys to snag the mark before Motorola.
The word android is rooted in the Greek word ὰνδρο, meaning “man,” and the suffix -ειδῄς, “having the likeness of.” It’s the same root as the word androgyne, a being with the physical characteristics of both a man and a woman. More commonly, the word hermaphrodite is used for such as blended person. This comes from the myth of Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, who became half-man, half-woman after the gods fused him with the nymph, Salmacis.
The adjective form of the word is androidal, meaning “like an automaton,” but it is rare. A quick Google search reveals 150,000 ghits, most of which seem to be the names of companies.
Now not only can the iPhone brigade get their dose of The Word Guy on their phones but now the Droid set can join in with words on the web.