The Grammarphobia Blog

Drones, bees and otherwise

Q: I would have thought that the word “drone” in reference to a remote-controlled plane was a recent neologism. However, I found “droneplane” in a New York Times crossword puzzle from 1953 as an answer to the clue “Remote-controlled aircraft.” How long has “drone” actually been used for an unmanned aircraft?

A: The word “drone” has a long history, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, but its use for a remote-controlled aircraft is relatively new, not showing up in print until the mid-1940s.

When the word appeared in Old English (spelled dran or dræn), it referred to a male bee whose primary role is to impregnate a fertile queen bee.

The earliest example for the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a Latin-Old English glossary, dated around 1000: “Fucus, dran.” (Fucus is Latin for a drone bee.)

In Middle English, the noun “drone” took on the figurative sense of a “non-worker; a lazy idler, a sluggard,” according to the OED. (In apian terminology, a “worker bee” is a usually sterile female that industriously collects pollen for the hive.)

The first OED citation for the figurative usage is from “Against the Scottes,” a poem by John Skelton written sometime before 1529 about the English victory over Scottish forces at Flodden Field in 1513: “The rude rank Scottes, lyke dronken dranes.”

A few decades later, the noun “drone” took on the sense of a “continued deep monotonous sound of humming or buzzing, as that of the bass of the bagpipe, the humming of a fly, or the like.”

None of the OED citations specifically mention the sound of bees, though a 1751 comment by Samuel Johnson in the Rambler refers to insects “that torment us with their drones or their stings.”

The earliest example in the dictionary for the sense of “drone” you’re asking about is from a 1946 newspaper article cited in the journal American Speech.

Here’s the original newspaper version, which is abbreviated in the OED: “The navy’s Drones will be sent into the cloud by one mother ship, then taken over by other ships and led by radio control, of course to a landing field at Roi.”

Why did the navy choose the word “drone” for an unmanned aircraft?

As the military historian Steven J. Zaloga explains in a letter published in a May 2013 issue of the journal Defense News, the usage was inspired by the British use of the term “Queen Bee” for a remotely controlled aircraft used in gunnery practice:

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 officer, 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.”

It seems to us that “drone” is more apt than “Queen Bee” for a remote-controlled vehicle. The linguist Ben Zimmer agrees.

In an article in the July 26, 2013, issue of the Wall Street Journal, Zimmer says: “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,” he adds, “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’s version of Denny’s creation was called the OQ-2, according to Zimmer, while the Navy’s version was “the TDD-1, short for ‘Target Drone Denny 1.’ ”

Some etymologists have speculated that the verb “drone” may have played a role in the use of the noun “drone” for an unmanned aircraft, perhaps because of the droning sound of fixed-wing planes. However, we haven’t found any evidence to support this.

When the verb showed up in the early 16th century, it meant to make a monotonous buzzing or humming sound as well as to act in a sluggish or lazy way.

The OED cites several quotations dating back to the early 1500s that suggest these two usages. We don’t want to put you to sleep, so we’ll end with a single examples, from “Of Discretioun in Asking,” a 1513 poem by the Scottish bard William Dunbar:

“And he that dronis ay as ane bee / Sowld haif [should have] ane heirar [hearer] dull as stane [stone].”

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