Word Odyssey: For Geek Pride Day, Some Hi-Tech Terms

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May 25th is Geek Pride Day. And why not; everyone else has a day, even fools. So, to honor the day, and feed your inner geek, I thought it might be the proper occasion to explore some hi-tech terms.

Let’s start with hi-tech itself. For that I need to begin with technology, which is a compound of two Greek words, “techno”, meaning “art or skill, and “logia”, which means a treatise or discourse. Technology came into English in the early 1600’s meaning a treatise on skilled arts and crafts. Its meaning later narrowed so that it referred more specifically to the body of knowledge of mechanical arts and sciences—technical know-how.

Hi-tech illustrates two common ways that language evolves: people shorten words and compound them, which is how we got hi-tech. The first documented use was a mention of a hi-tech home in the 1972 Whole Earth Catalogue. As a standalone contraction, tech came later, when in the 1980’s it referred to industries specializing in, well, technology. Techie began as college slang for students in technical fields, then expanded to anyone knowledgeable in the technical details that for most of us cause our eyes to glaze over. 
Many techies are nerds, which was a substitute for someone who is a square. No one is quite certain how the word nerd originated, but it might be based on a comical Dr. Seuss character, a made-up, human-like animal with an over-sized head—sounds about right. Of course, with the rise of technology, it became sort of cool to be a nerd, although increasingly nerds proudly prefer to be called geeks. That’s probably from a very old Germanic word “geck” for a fool of the simpleton sort, which is not how geeks are viewed today.

Today, geeks are most closely associated with computers. Interestingly, computer originally meant a human, coined in the 1600’s to refer to a person who performed calculations. Computer derived from Latin “putare” meaning to reckon, “com”, a Latin prefix meaning together (eg., combination), and the suffix “er”, for a person who does these kinds of things (eg., a grocer). In the 1800’s, computer transferred to mechanical calculating devices, so naturally was applied to electronic calculating machines when they were invented in the 1940’s.

Geeks invented robots, machines that perform mundane human tasks. Robot stems from a 1920 play by Czechoslovakian Karel Capek. He used “robotnik”, meaning humans in forced labor, which was from the Slavik root “robota” meaning slave and the suffix “nik”, meaning a group of persons, like Beatniks. The English translation of Capek’s play shortened it to robot. Science fiction writers such as Isaac Asimov later popularized robots as intelligent machines. The Jetsons made them loveable. Computers have made them possible.

Speaking of loveable, remember R2-D2 and C-3PO, a couple of stars in the Star Wars movies, who filmmaker George Lucas called droids. Lucas didn’t quite make up this word on his own. An Encyclopedia from 1728 claimed that the scholar Albertus Magnus made an “androides” way back in the 13th century, meaning a human-like automaton—from Greek “andro” meaning “man”, and “eides” meaning “shape”. Lucas clipped this to droid, then made a gazillion dollars by trademarking and licensing the word.

Don’t confuse a robot or android with cyborg, which is a fusion of electronics with an actual human. Cyborg is a contraction of “cybernetics” and “organism”, then compounds them. We’re not cyborgs yet, although the makers of Android and other smart phones are giving it a go.

Also in Star Wars, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker battled using sabers that shot out “light amplified by stimulated emission of radiation”, the scientific name given by the computer nerds who invented the intense beam of light that is so narrow because the wavelengths of the atoms are identical. Fortunately, in 1960 someone came up with a manageable acronym for it: l-a-s-e-r. Oddly, we pronounce the “s” in laser as a “z”, maybe because “lazer” just sounds like it is “zzzzzapping” something? Or perhaps it’s just a lazy pronunciation.

Scientific inventions just seem to scream for geeky new words to describe them. Radar is another example. Radar detects the position of distant objects by aiming radio waves at an object, then measuring the time the waves take to bounce back. Radar developed as practical device at the beginning of World War II, which the British used effectively in defending against German aerial attacks during the Battle of Britain. The word is an acronym, more or less, of “radio detection and ranging.” Radio itself, as an electromagnetic wave, comes from Latin “radiatus” meaning to shine, or radiate.

Happy Geek Pride Day. Now, beam me up, Scotty. 

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