Brainfood: Words-worth


Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Few words add such marketing glamour as 'system'. Shampoo has been elevated to a 'hair care system', while a sharp blade and some soap has become a 'shaving system'. The idea is to confer technological sophistication on the mundane. But 'system' is not, in origin, a technological word.

It's from the Greek sustema, meaning anything from a government to a musical interval. When it appeared in English in the early 17th century, it meant a linked group of objects, ideas or people. A set of beliefs can be 'a system'. 'The System' is society as a whole, especially if you're against it. The first scientific system was the solar system, a term coined by philosopher John Locke in 1704. Every technological system followed from that, from the railway network to broadcasting. The first computer 'operating system' appeared in 1961, closely followed by the first 'system crash'.

But systems need not be complicated: the 'vitality eating system' promoted by the Flour Advisory Service seems to consist largely of bread.

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