Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

How "Drone" Got Off the Ground

For my most recent "Word on the Street" column in the Wall Street Journal, I consider the history of a word very much in the news: drone, referring to a pilotless aircraft guided by remote control. It turns out the term has been on a long, strange trip from early prototypes in the 1930s to the current controversial U.S. program of covert drone strikes.

You might be able to guess that drone is derived from its namesake in the beehive: those stingless male bees that make no honey but fertilize the eggs of the queen. But how did the apiarist's drone find its way into aeronautics? Did it have to do with the buzz of the plane's engine, since drone has long been used to describe buzzy bee noises? Or was there another analogy at work, comparing a bee at the behest of its queen to an unmanned aircraft at the behest of its controller?

The initial connection between bees and planes was a bit more indirect, I found. The military historian and analyst Steve Zaloga laid out the story in a letter to Defense News:

Drone is one of the oldest official designations for remotely controlled aircraft in the American military lexicon. in 1935, when the chief of naval operations Adm. William Standley, visited Britain, he was given a demonstration of the Royal Navy’s new DH 82B Queen Bee remotely controlled aircraft that was used for anti-aircraft gunnery practice. On his return, Standley assigned an office, Cmdr. Delmer Fahrney at the Radion Division of the Naval Research Laboratory, to develop a similar system for US Navy gunnery training. Fahrney adopted the name drone to refer to these aircraft in homage to the Queen Bee. Drone became the official US Navy designation for target drones for many decades.

According to Captain Linwood S. Howeth's 1963 History of Communications-Electronics in the United States Navy, drone was accepted right away by Navy officers working on the project: "In his semiannual report for the last 6 months of 1936, the Officer in Charge of the project initiated the term 'drone' as descriptive of the radio-controlled aerial targets." But it wasn't until the U.S. was pulled into World War II that drone saw wider use, as pilotless planes were put into production.

The British actor Reginald Denny, known for supporting roles in such movies as Anna Karenina and Rebecca, turned his fascination with radio-controlled model planes into a business called Radioplane, selling early "target drones" to the Army and Navy. The Navy referred to the craft as TDD, for "Target Drone Denny," which would earn it the nickname Tiddledy-dee.

Denny wasn't the only cinematic luminary to have a connection to World War II drone production. The Army version of the TDD, dubbed the OQ-2, was manufactured at a plant outside of Los Angeles. Denny's friend Ronald Reagan, then an Army publicist, assigned a photographer to take pictures of the women working on the assembly line. One of those women was named Norma Jeane Dougherty, and the photo shoot eventually led to a Hollywood career — under the name Marilyn Monroe.

(I also learned that Joseph Kennedy, Jr., elder brother of Jack and Bobby, died in World War II on a secret mission involving a different kind of drone. B-17 bombers were converted into pilotless aircraft that were laden with explosives so that they could be crashed into German targets. A converted bomber still needed to be flown into position before it could continue on as a drone. But Kennedy's B-17 exploded prematurely, before the crew was able to bail out over the English Channel.)

The general public didn't know anything about the military's development of drones until after the war, when various publications ran features explaining how the aircraft operated. In 1946, magazines like Flying and Popular Mechanics gave detailed descriptions, with the latter reporting:

Drones, as the radio-controlled craft are called, have many potentialities, civilian and military. Some day huge mother ships may guide fleets of long-distance, cargo-carrying airplanes across continents and oceans. Long-range drones armed with atomic bombs could be flown by accompanying mother ships to their targets and in for perfect hits.

Nowadays the U.S. drone program is so extensive — and so intensely debated — that drone is flying off in new directions. One recent development is the use of drone as a transitive verb meaning "to target or kill in a drone strike" (as in "Don't drone me, bro!"). The esteemed lexicographer David Barnhart pointed me to one early example of the verb usage, from 2009:

Obama continually affirms that America is under an "existential threat" if Afghanistan is not conquered and the "recalcitrant tribes" of Pakistan not bombed and droned into submission.
(Chris Floyd, Empire Burlesque, July 6, 2009)

Slightly earlier than that is this example suggesting that Pakistanis were already talking about "getting droned":

“Droned” is a verb we use now in Pakistan. It turns out, interestingly enough, that those US predator drones that have been killing Pakistani citizens almost weekly have been taking off from and landing within our own country.
(Fatima Bhutto, The New Statesman, March 12, 2009)

For more on the verb usage of drone, see Arnold Zwicky's blog post, "The inevitable verbing." While the verbing does seem inevitable, it may garner some attention when the American Dialect Society gathers to select its 2013 Word of the Year. Much like surge in 2006, it's not the word itself that is new and notable but the move from noun to transitive verb. The part-of-speech switch indicates that drone has entered a new stage in its long life cycle.

Update: You can hear me drone on about the history of drone on PRI's "The World."

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.