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January 11th, 2019

language change

I lately saw, and not for the first time, a discussion of a near future setting that referred to "androids." From the context, it was clear that this meant human-shaped machines.

Back when I was in my teens, science fiction writers called such entities "robots." "Android" meant a humanlike being made of artificial living tissue. Apparently that convention goes back to the 1940s (Edmond Hamilton used it in his Captain Future novels). It was also used in some comics, particularly Legion of Super-Heroes, set in the 30th century. So I find it jarring that the term is now used for machines. I think that this was probably a result of George Lucas using the term "droid" in Star Wars, though he didn't limit it to humanoids; R2D2 is certainly not humanoid.

Subsequently, what used to be called androids have started being called "bioroids"; apparently a number of anime series have done this. It's a portmanteau of bio- (for living being) and -roid (cut down from "droid"). To my mind it's a really inept one, because it treats "roid" as if it were a root word rather than a single surviving letter from andr- plus a suffix.

But this whole subject is full of silly word choices. Android comes from Greek aner, andr-; but that's Greek for "adult male human being." It's poorly suited either sexless or sterile beings, or to beings that could be either sex. On the other hand, some writers have coined the word "gynoid" for artificial lifeforms shaped like female human beings, and while the impulse to precision might be creditable, the word itself is badly formed; the Greek root for "adult female human being" is gyne, gynec-, so the word ought to be "gynecoid." The generic word for beings of either sex would be "anthropoid," but that word was already used for nonhuman apes, so it would have caused confusion. Maybe they should have gone to Latin and used "hominoid," though that might have been confused with "humanoid" or with "hominid." Really, the whole thing is a mess; they should have stuck with "robot" (which originally meant a synthetic living being in human shape) and coined some other word for mechanical beings. Maybe they could have stuck with "automaton," which has a really long history.

There, I feel better.

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