Thursday, May 22, 2014

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

Posted By on Thu, May 22, 2014 at 10:00 AM

Page 2 of 2

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. 

Tags: , ,

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Tucson Weekly

Best of Tucson Weekly

Tucson Weekly