Friday, March 6, 2015

Game of Drones

I owe that title to a headline in our local version of the Erickson Tribune. Sometimes you see a headline that produces literal envy. I wish I’d thought of that! That article tells the story of drones, as it were, replacing the milkman and the UPS/FedEx delivery truck. My subject is the word’s etymology. We’re having another word-centered morning. The word that set us off on that, however, goes back into the past—and the origin of drone sort of capped our morning’s “round” (in the musical sense). Percept began, precept followed, and we ended on drone.

Percept surfaced late last night as Brigitte read an article titled Philosophy of Nature published by International Catholic University (link)—an odd word when stared at. We know it all too well in its verbal form, perception, but its noun form, meaning “a (thing) taken (in),” but with emphasis on that unsounded thing, is almost never used except in such philosophical context as in the referenced paper above. Per in this concept means “thoroughly” the cept comes from the Latin capere, “to take, to grasp.” 

In precept the pre comes from prae, meaning “before”; the cept is once more “grasp.” Thus “that which comes before,” presumably, we’re properly capable of grasping something. The word means a maxim, rule, an order, or instruction. Percept is solidly objective; precept is a quite immaterial “rule” or “guidance.” The preceptor, therefore, is a teacher or a guide.

Now for that famous drone. I have what follows from English Language & Usage (here). Evidently the drone has quite a history already; it’s actually older than I am. It originated in 1935 when the British Royal Navy demonstrated a remote-controlled aircraft in target practice. That plane was called DH 82B Queen Bee. A U.S. admiral attending that demonstration, one William H. Standley, returned home and there asked Commander Delmer Fahrney to develop something analogous for the U.S. Navy. It was Fahrney who originated the word by naming such flyers drones “in homage to the Queen Bee.”

By the time of World War II, two kinds of drones had been fashioned and were being tested: target drones to be destroyed and assault drones to do the attacking. In the dim future lay the drone that accidentally landed on the White House lawn and in the immediate future will deliver the papers—once targeting has been tuned up a little more.

Incidentally, George R.R. Martin, the man whose novels gave birth to Game of Thrones, was a man I’d known slightly in my science fiction days. Once, while assembling an anthology of stories, he included one of my novellas in his collection. I still glow faintly from that close contact with future celebrity.


  1. Ah, "word-smithing" I call that the journalist art of headline writing. You have a considerable amount of such skill yourself and that is why you felt this twinge of envy, perhaps? Yes, it is a great headline! Alliteration, antithesis or paradox, etc will always catch my eye in newspapers, too.

    1. Oh yes. Our morning conversations resound with the hammers of that smithy...


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