Etymological Oddity: Why ‘Joystick’?

Etymological Oddity: Why 'Joystick'?

These days it’s more likely to be called a ‘controller’, but ‘joystick’
or ‘joypad’ is the traditional name. Where does the word come from?
Word-bores will love this research…

Michael Quinion’s book Port Out Starboard Home attempts to find the
truth behind many common words and phrases in the English language,
rooting out fake explanations for the likes of ‘okay’; ‘Big Apple’ and
‘picnic’.

One of his subjects is ‘joystick’, meaning both a videogame controller
and an aircraft steering column. The word has given much fuel to lame
feature-writers, unable to resist the opportunity for a double-entendre
at the expense of gamers. But is there a sexual connotation in the
word’s original roots?

Quinion writes, "Several works on aviation history cite a man named
Joyce as the inventor, so that the first form was ‘Joyce stick’.
However, nobody has been able to find any evidence for the existence of
this person…"

He adds, "The first known written example of joystick is in a 1910
entry in the diary of a pioneering aeronaut Robert Loraine." Loraine
uses the word to explain controlling an aircraft.

Quinion goes on. "I wonder if the insubstantial Mister Joyce was an
attempt by writers to remove any suspicion that there was a sexual
element in the choice of term. Some writers have claimed that the shape
of the stick, and its position [between the (usually male) pilot's
legs] led to the term."

Joystick was used as a slang term for ‘penis’, but not until much
later. Aircraft controls were not configured in this way in Loraine’s
day, so the origin must come from elsewhere.

"It seems more likely," says Quinion, "that ‘joystick’ derives from
another sense of ‘joy’ that was around at the time. ‘Joyride’ appeared
in Britain around 1908 for an unauthorized and thrilling ride in a
vehicle. The implication may have been that the aircraft’s controls
were the means to exhilaration and an adventurous undertaking."

Michael Quinion’s ‘Port Out Starboard Home’ is published by Penguin.

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