The Flight of ‘Drone’ From Bees to Planes
By BEN ZIMMER
Drone-strike disclosures have prompted headlines like this one from the Atlantic Wire: “How the NSA Is Using Cell Phone Data to Drone Civilians (In Pakistan).” “Drone” has increasingly come into play as a verb, meaning “to target or kill in a drone strike,” especially among critics of the Obama administration. But how did “drone” become the label for unmanned aircraft in the first place? Since Old English, “drone” has referred to a male honeybee whose only role is to mate with the queen. Because drones, unlike worker bees, need not worry about gathering nectar or pollen, they have often been seen as idlers, and by the 16th century, “drone” could refer to lazy humans, too. Around the same time, “drone” began branching out as a verb, meaning to buzz like a bee or to speak in a monotonous fashion reminiscent of a bee’s persistent hum. Bees also played a key role in the use of “drone” for early radio-controlled aircraft, but for other reasons. The military historian Steven Zaloga, author of the 2008 book “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” explained the source of the term in a recent letter to Defense News. In 1935, U.S. Adm. William H. Standley saw a British demonstration of the Royal Navy’s new remote-control aircraft for target practice, the DH 82B Queen Bee. Back stateside, Standley charged Commander Delmer Fahrney with developing something similar for the Navy. “Fahrney adopted the name ‘drone’ to refer to these aircraft in homage to the Queen Bee,” Mr. Zaloga wrote. The term fit, as a drone could only function when controlled by an operator on the ground or in a “mother” plane. During World War II, the Army and Navy stepped up production of “target drones” for practice and “assault drones” for combat. One pioneer in the field was the British actor Reginald Denny, whose model-plane hobby led him to found the Radioplane Company. The Army placed orders for Denny’s DENN +0.69% creation, which it called the OQ-2. The Navy had its own contract and called the vehicle the TDD-1, short for “Target Drone Denny 1.”The aeronautical “drone” slowly morphed into a verb as well, originally meaning “to convert a piloted aircraft into a pilotless drone.” In 1996, Helicopter News reported that the manufacturer Kaman KAMN -0.34% “successfully droned various helicopters.” But it was only after 9/11, with the advent of covert drone strikes aimed at terror suspects, that the verb “drone” gained currency, especially in Pakistan, where “droning” became commonplace. As Fatima Bhutto wrote in the New Statesman in March 2009, “‘droned’ is a verb we use now in Pakistan. “On the domestic front, posters critical of U.S. policy rework the Obama campaign mantra “Yes We Can” into “Yes We Drone.” And riffing off “Don’t tase me, bro,” the famous plea by a student who was hit by a police Taser at a 2007 speech by John Kerry, protesters have embraced the slogan, “Don’t drone me, bro!” —Mr. Zimmer, a lexicographer, is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. A version of this article appeared July 27, 2013, on page C4 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Week in Words The Flight of ‘Drone’ From Bees to Plane.