Sunday, May 29, 2011


The following is a commercial I've been seeing a lot lately. It's not a great commercial, but it got me thinking...

Fifty billion network devices by the year 2020. Seven devices for every person on earth, which really means that you and I will probably have at least twenty. And I'm not even close to being an early adapter.

Device is one of those words, old and reliable, that seems to have been gaining a bigger market share lately. I may be wrong, but I think its newer sense has really only passed into the common parlance over the last year or two. Before that, we heard more about the individual devices that people owned--Ipods and Ipads, Tablets, cell phones, ereaders, etc. To tell the truth, I am not sure of all the electronic paraphenalia that is meant to be included under the header of networking devices, but I do know that, according to the commercials, it's all getting a little out of hand.

What is a device? I mean, in its original sense? It's funny, because I have some vague association to the word that leads me to believe it has some occult meaning other than its more prosaic one. I would have just blamed that on to my ramshackle associative mind, but I came across a newish book of Philip Reeves called Fever Crumb and after a beginning where Fever and Dr. Crumb are manufacturing some paper boys, a "Master of Devices" is mentioned. Something tells me we are not in Silicon Valley anymore, Dorothy.

Device: A contrivance or an invention serving a particular purpose, especially a machine used to perform one or more relatively simple tasks.

That's what the Free Dictionary has to say about it. Relatively simple tasks? Perhaps. But these days the relatively simple tasks that our devices do are done at a speed beyond human comprehension, and enable them to accomplish things that we could not do in several lifetimes.

I often hazard a guess at the etymology of a word, only to discover my effort is completely without merit. This time, I was relatively sure that device and divide would be another false leap.

Guess what? Wrong again.

Device is a late 13th century word, and comes from the Old French devis.

Here's how the Online Etmology dictionary defines devis:"division, separation, disposition, wish, desire; coat of arms, emblem; last will." Ultimately the French can be traced back to the Latin. Divisare is the Vulgar Latin frequentive for dividare. (Vulgar Latin is the speech of the common person back in the day, and frequentive, though formidable sounding, really just means a the form of a verb that expresses repetitive action. It often becomes an independent but related word, as apparently it has in this case.)

So, a heraldic devise, a term which any of us who have ever had an idle look at the family coat of arms presumably has something to do with the way it divides the coat of arms. And anyone who has dealt with a will also knows that it is largely about divisions.I assume that the disposition, wish and desire aspects stem from this part of the word's history.

But speaking of desires, whenever I hear the word devices, I automatically think of the phrase 'devices and desires'. This is because of the P. D. James novel of the same name, but James, who is very well read and British to boot didn't just make this  up out of whole cloth. She lifted it from somewhere, and that somewhere turns out to be The Book of Common Prayer.

We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.
                                      1928 Book of Common Prayer, The Order for Daily Morning Prayer

The devices James was thinking of, though, were not not social networking ones, but presumably nuclear ones. Her novel is set at a nuclear  power plant on the British coast. It's been a long time since I read it, so I'm hazy on whether the peril was illegal uranium or just the danger of the plant itself, but I do know that 'apps' did not figure in.

"Devices and Desires" has been lifted for more than just the James title. A little book searching reveals under the same name a book about contraception, a science fiction novel, a study of  gender and American nursing, and unsurprisingly, a couple of books of poetry. It's a  tribute, not just to the prayerbook, but to the wide range of usage this original word for a simple gadget that would just perform its mindless task has come to cover.
Reddish Design Studio

And now to the more sinister, or at least supernatural aspect of device. Because once you start plugging in supernatural and device into the old Google Search engine, you of course come up with golem. What is a golem? Well, it's basically the Frankenstein monster of Jewish lore (although the Jewish model precedes the Mary Shelley versiion by a few hundred years)--an anthropomorphic being created wholly from inanimate matter, and made to fulfill some desire of mankind. The golems inevitably crack up and cause ruin and have to be destroyed.

So you think golems and our latter day devices really have nothing to do with each other? Well, what about  this, then?

Seriously, though--seven devices for every human being on earth? I would have thought that the trend was for each person to have only one--but that one would of course have to do everything.

Almost forgot to add a blog favorite. Let's give this one to Peter Rozovsky, of Detectives Beyond Borders renown. Although if you checked  it just at this particular moment, you come across a piece about Elmore Leonard, in general, Peter specializes in writing about crime fiction beyond our American shores. Maybe you think you don't like crime fiction, or even that you don't like foreign fiction--heaven forfend. Follow along on his blog for awhile, and I'm pretty sure you will realize that you thought wrong.  


  1. Thanks for not leaving me to my own devices when it comes to promoting my blog.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"