The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Android’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

Where does the word ‘android’ come from, and what does it mean? And what does the origin of the word ‘android’ have to do with apes? And how did the word come to be used for an operating system? Let’s take a closer look at the curious etymology of a word which arose almost by mistake.

First of all, a brief history. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word ‘android’ as ‘an automaton resembling a human being’. The word has been in use for a surprisingly long time: the OED’s earliest citation is from 1728, when Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopædia; or, an universal dictionary of arts and sciences recorded, ‘Albertus Magnus, is recorded as having made an Androides.’ By 1819, John Mason Good’s Pantologia: a new cyclopædia was reporting that ‘M. de Kempelen … constructed an androides capable of playing at chess.’ Long before modern robots began to be developed (or the word ‘robot’ was even coined) in the twentieth century, human-like machines were being developed, and ‘android’ was given as the name for them.

The word ‘android’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as an ‘automaton resembling a human being’. This makes sense in light of the etymology of ‘android’, on the face of it, since the word comes from the ancient Greek ἀνδρο- (andro) meaning ‘man’ and the suffix –εἰδης (oid), meaning ‘-like’. So ‘android’ means, literally, ‘man-like’. (This -oid suffix is also there in numerous other everyday words, including ‘cuboid’, meaning ‘cube-like’ – because a cuboid is like a cube but not exactly the same as one – and ‘factoid’. Yes, ‘factoid’ means literally ‘fact-like’: it was coined by the novelist Norman Mailer, in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe, to describe something which is repeated as though it were fact, and which sounds like a true fact, but which is actually untrue.)

But when looked at more closely, ‘android’ meaning ‘man-like’ doesn’t make complete sense. Because ‘man’ has, historically, carried two meanings. It has referred both to male humans (‘man’ as distinct from ‘woman’) and to humans of both sexes. This latter sense obviously survives in words like ‘mankind’ and in phrases like ‘man cannot live by bread alone’, where ‘man’ here refers generally to ‘men and woman’. ‘Man’, as the old quip has it, embraces ‘woman’.

For andros is not the ancient Greek equivalent of ‘man’ in the sense of ‘human’. It is not, to put it another way, a gender-neutral term.

In a 1979 essay, ‘The Vocabulary of Science Fiction’ (included in his brilliant, but hard-to-track-down, collection Asimov on Science Fiction), Isaac Asimov discusses the origins of the word ‘android’. He points out that the ancient Greek word ἄνθρωπος (i.e., anthropos) means ‘human being’ (so ‘man’ in the gender-neutral sense). From this root we got the word ‘anthropoid’, meaning ‘human-like’ or ‘resembling the human form’.

The OED attests the word ‘anthropoid’ from 1813. Curiously, its earliest entry for the word carries the definition ‘Of an image, statue, robot, or other inanimate object: shaped like or resembling a human being.’ Later in the century, however, the robotic connotations of the word slowly disappeared, and the word was more commonly applied to humans who were ‘apelike’ in appearance or character.

Curiously, although ‘anthropoid’ means ‘human-like’, it has come to be used to describe humans who are ‘apelike’ (rather than, say, apes which resemble humans, which would make more sense, from an etymological perspective). While we’re on this issue, technically the correct word to describe something or somebody ‘apelike’ is ‘pithecoid’, as Asimov reminds us.

And as Asimov also points out, technically the name for an artificial device (such as a robot) which resembled a human being in appearance should be ‘an anthropoid device’ or, when shortened, ‘an anthropoid’. After all, an android should, according to the word’s strict etymology, only describe a device which resembles a male human being. If a device resembled a woman, the word ‘gynoid’ should be used.

But because ‘anthropoid’ had already been commandeered and was being used to describe apelike creatures (or, on occasion, apes, such as gorillas, which resembled humans), that word could not also be used to describe a humanoid device like an automaton without causing confusion.

So instead, the word ‘android’ was coined, with the ‘male-like’ meaning of the word being conveniently smoothed over to become ‘man-like’ – with ‘man’ referring to humans in general.

However, there’s just one small issue with this. Perhaps the word ‘android’ continued to be popular because ‘anthropoid’, the more logical alternative, was already in use elsewhere, but that cannot have been the original reason the word ‘android’ was coined. Because the first recorded instance of ‘android’ predates the earliest citation for ‘anthropoid’ by almost a century.

Perhaps, after all, it was just good old-fashioned male chauvinism which led to the earliest ‘man-like’ automata being given the (male-specific) name ‘androids’.

How did the Google operating system come to be called ‘Android’? Curiously, it was nothing to do with the software supposedly resembling human behaviour: the founder of Android Inc., Andy Rubin, had previously worked at Apple, where was given the nickname ‘Android’ because of his love of robots.