Up in the air, Junior Bird-puters.

Dear Word Detective:  There’s been a lot of talk lately about “drones,” the military kind, and the other day it occurred to me that I have no idea of where the word came from. Is the robot-aircraft kind of “drone” somehow related to the “droning” monotone many of my college professors used in lectures? Does the word have to do with the fact that the drone’s flight is remotely-controlled and thus the machine itself is “mindless”? — Bill Kaplan.

Funny you should ask about drones. It’s beginning to seem like every time I tune into the Situation Room or Run For Your Life News or Katy Bar The Door! Update, somebody has hit fast forward and there’s a new drone story to top off my fear and loathing tank. Thus I read, last week, that the US Air Force is now training more “drone pilots” (who “fly” from recliners in a trailer) than it is training actual pilots who fly, y’know, in actual planes. Then a few days ago, a small unidentified drone almost collided with an Alitalia airliner over New York City. It seems to be a bit late to wonder what could possibly go wrong, kids. I just hope Skynet comes on line soon and straightens out this mess.

Although most of us have become familiar with military drones within just the past few years, robot aircraft are nothing new, and attempts to develop working “drones” began in the early 20th century. Since World War II, various kinds of “drones” have been used for target practice, research, exploration, surveillance and many other tasks. “Drone” was first used in this sense in 1946. The technical sophistication of drones has, of course, varied over the years; some were simply regular airplanes (usually obsolete) fitted with a rudimentary remote control apparatus. But whether the “drone” was simple or sophisticated, its signature characteristic was that no human was aboard to guide its flight (thus the initialism preferred by the agencies that fly drones, UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle)). There have also been non-flying “drones” developed over the years, including pilotless submarines and various land-based robots used by police agencies, etc.

Considering that some aerial “drones” cost tens of millions of dollars and employ super-secret computer stuff, it’s kind of cool that the term itself comes from the Rodney Dangerfield of the insect world, the bee known since Old English as the “drone.” Drones are male honey bees who have no stinger, don’t make honey as the female worker bees do, and exist solely to mate with the queen bee. Since they produce no honey, drones were considered “lazy” and unproductive before the finer points of bee sociology were known, and that sense of “mindless idler” has long been extended to both machines that run themselves and unimaginative people who live their lives “in a rut,” devoid of creativity or initiative (“The lands are held by active men and not by drones,” B. Disraeli, 1845).

As for your professors, you may rightly suspect that they were trying to bore you to death, but in fact they were demonstrating the likely etymology of “drone.” The word “drone,” which has relatives in several Germanic languages, is probably ultimately “onomatopoeic” or “echoic,” formed in imitation of the monotonous humming sound of hundreds of bees doing bee stuff together. That monotonous buzzing sound was first called a “drone” in the 16th century. The verb “to drone,” meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “To give forth a continued monotonous sound; to hum or buzz, as a bee or a bagpipe; to talk in a monotonous tone,” appeared at roughly the same time.

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