Modern use of slave has evolved to include electronic devices in a "master / slave" configuration.

Did this use of "slave" ever exist before electronic devices used it? Did the word "slave" ever apply to things other than humans?

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    While still generally talking about humans, you can also enslave the mind/soul/will.
    – Gob Ties
    Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 17:23
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    I've had to replace the "slave cylinder" in multiple hydraulic systems. Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 21:50

3 Answers 3


The collocation (and meaning) slave device goes back well before electronic devices. The OED gives examples of meaning C1 c. ("Used to denote a subsidiary device, esp. one which is controlled by, or which follows accurately the movements of, another device.") from 1904.

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    +1, but the characterization of 1904 as "well before electronic devices" is rather dubious (unless by electronic you mean has integrated circuits). Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 19:21
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    I have accepted this answer because you've understood what I was trying to say and provided a useful link. Thank you!
    – DanBeale
    Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 19:44
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    @PeterShor -- I think you are confusing electronic with electric. Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 21:01
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    @PeterShor: The citation from 1904 is " The Clock consists of two separate instruments:—(a) A pendulum... (b) The ‘slave-clock’ with a wheel train and dead-beat escapement, the pendulum of which has a period of vibration slightly shorter than one second." While this does not explicitly say it was not electric, I think it is pretty clear that it was not. This is leaving aside Malvolio's point, which is relevant.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 21:19
  • @PeterShor: For a few minutes I couldn't believe your name was actually Peter Shor... I thought it was someone else pretending to have the same name as you haha.
    – user541686
    Commented Jun 20, 2014 at 5:27

Ants take slaves:

Slave-making ants are brood parasites that capture brood of other ant species to increase the worker force of their colony. After emerging in the slave-maker nest, slave workers work as if they were in their own colony, while parasite workers only concentrate on replenishing the labor force from neighboring host nests, a process called slave raiding.

You can argue that cuckoos enslave other birds to raise their young as well.


OED lists “slave jib” or just “slave” as a sailing term from 1934, meaning a jib that was pretty much permanently set.

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