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Ten years ago, the word "drone" was either used to refer to drone bees or the experimental technology that was autonomous military UAVs.

Five years ago, it was increasingly used simply to add flair to the name of an autonomous flying object (e.g. A.R. Drone). It was also used to refer to military UAVs in general.

Recently, the news has used the blanket term "drone" to basically refer to any man-made object that is remotely controlled, does not touch the ground for more than five seconds, and can fly to any arbitrary target, rather than a specific term such as "RC aircraft" or "FPV (first-person view)-capable plane".

How did the meaning of the word transform so quickly? Is it simply due to the misuse of the word by the press?

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  • I don't think it has transformed. It's being used to refer to the same types of things (UAVs) that it always has- there are just a lot more of them nowadays.
    – Jim
    Apr 26, 2015 at 4:34
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    @Jim Not so - UAVs originally referred to the military kind. Now the word is being used for civilian RC planes and quadcopters.
    – oldmud0
    Apr 26, 2015 at 4:37
  • There is nothing in the acronym "unmanned aerial vehicle" that ties it to the military. It just so happens that most of the UAVs in the past have been military but anything that is an aerial vehicle that is unmanned must necessarily be a UAV.
    – Jim
    Apr 26, 2015 at 4:44

2 Answers 2

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Sixty-five years ago, drone had, among its seven definitions as a noun in Webster's New [Sixth] Collegiate Dictionary (1949), this one:

A pilotless airplane, vessel, or other craft remote-controlled by radio, as for target purposes or ammunition-laden for blasting enemy defenses.

No previous Webster's Collegiate Dictionary had any such definition, so the Sixth Collegiate marks a convenient starting point for tracking changes in the word's meaning over time. But not much change has occurred. Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003), the most recent dictionary in the series, has this definition for drone in the same sense:

an unmanned aircraft or ship guided by remote control

Not only is that definition very similar to the one from 1949, but it naturally encompasses the new types of drones (from the past ten years) that the OP identifies. It seems to me that the overreach here isn't in applying the term drone to nonmilitary remote-controlled vehicles such as quadcopters; it's in asserting that, at some point in the past, drone properly applied only to military vehicles of a certain narrowly defined type.

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  • Much like OP, when I grew up in the 70's and 80's, a drone was only something that was autonomous. Despite your well-researched answer that remote control was part of its original definition, that is not my experience of actual use. It was jarring when people began referring to any remote-controlled aircraft as a drone, and I pushed back. At some point the use became ubiquitous. I would like to see an actual-use history, but that would be a large undertaking.
    – Kirt
    May 6, 2023 at 3:57
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Popular usage---with or without a central authority---"transforms" how words are understood all the time, even creates new words or word meanings in just a few years.

Take googling, for example. Most established dictionaries have probably not added it yet to their official word lists at this time. But you likely understood what I meant when I wrote it.

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