Haptic is a term which is probably becoming more and more popular because of the recent introduction into the mass market of smart devices (phones, watches etc.) with heptic characteristics.

Haptic refers to:

  • a technology that uses touch to control and interact with computers. A user may apply a sense of touch through vibrations, motion or force.

  • Haptic technology is used mainly in creating virtual objects, controlling virtual objects or in the improvement of the remote control of machines and devices.

  • Haptic devices can measure reactive forces and bulk forces applied by a user.


Haptic entered the English language towards the end of the 19th century but its usage has increased only in recent decades (Ngram) in technological contexts.

  • "pertaining to the sense of touch," 1890, from Greek haptikos "able to come into contact with," from haptein "to fasten". (Etymonline)

My question:

In what fields was the term originally used (medical, scientific or else)? that is, how come that this "greek" term was borrowed at the turn of the 19th century? Is the term now used also outside tech contexts?

  • It was probably coined to fill out a lexical gap: optic, aural, olfactory,... It has been popular since in those circles where touch as a sense is important, eg medicine (neurology), perception in psychology. – Mitch Sep 17 '15 at 15:00
  • @Mitch. wasn't 'tactile' already availabe at that time? etymonline.com/index.php?term=tactile – user66974 Sep 17 '15 at 15:04
  • Josh, the gap is in the particular dimension. There's visual vs tactile (latinate), but optic vs haptic (Greek). Aural, auditory, auricular may have been a wrong choice (all latinate) but physicians weren't necessarily consistent. – Mitch Sep 17 '15 at 15:15

The OED attributes haptic and haptics to translations of a passage in Isaac Barrow's 1683 Lectiones Mathematicae,

Quod si perinde comperta foret undulationis aereae figura, qua sonus efficitur, et audiendi sensus impellitur, inde nova proculdubio pars emergeret Matheses, Acoustices nomine celebranda.

Haptice quoque, et Geustice, et Osphrantice pari jure mererenur in hunc ordinem cooptari; si cujusmodi motibus peraguntur istae sensiones conjectura subodorari possent philosophantes.

The first citation of haptic in the OED is from 1860, in William Whewell's edition, and the first of haptics in an earlier translation published in 1734 by John Kirby:

there would doubtless arise thence a new Part of Mathematics to be celebrated by the Name of *Acoustics*, or the Science of Sounds. Also *Haptics*, *Geustics*, and *Osphrantics* (or the Sciences of Touches, Tastes and Smells) would by a similar Reason merit to be chosen into this Order.

But neither term saw much light of day, and it is more probably more accurate to say that it was introduced from the world of psychology in the late 19th century, the OED's second suggestion. Specifically, it appears the 1892 Über den Hautsinn by Max Dessoir, coined as a parallel to acoustics and optics:

Ich erlaube mir, hierfür das Wort „Haptik" in Vorschlag zu bringen, das im Anschluss an Optik und Akustik gebildet und von dem Verbum ἁπτομαι abzuleiten ist.

or loosely,

I take the liberty to bring forward the word haptics in proposal, which follows optics and acoustics and is derived from the verb ἁπτομαι.

I imagine Dessoir wanted a term of Greek origin, hence haptics over, say, tactilics. Haptic as an adjective is cited from 1895 onwards, with the first post-Dessoir citation given from Mind 4:407:

In haptic sensations are recognised sensations of simple pleasure, of traction and of impact.

Until the term was applied to touchscreen technology, the psychological term seems to have been the principle use, hence the International Society for Haptics.

  • 2
    I'd got a lot of this and you beat me to it. I did find Kirkby's translation of the title though: "The usefulness of mathematical learning explained and demonstrated: being mathematical lectures read in the publick schools at the University of Cambridge," which might be worth mentioning, if only for its length! – Andrew Leach Sep 17 '15 at 16:04
  • Wait, does Dessoir seriously write “von dem Verbum ἁπτικός abzuleiten ist”? That is actually a bit shocking to me for a learnèd man of 1892: ἁπτικός is an adjective, not a verb! The verb (as also mentioned in the question) is ἅπτειν. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 17 '15 at 16:07
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Is it possible he meant verb in a loose sense, as in deverbal adjective? – called2voyage Sep 17 '15 at 16:18
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    @JanusBahsJacquet The fault is in my hurried transcription; he uses the verb as ἁπτομαι. – choster Sep 17 '15 at 16:39
  • @choster Phew! Faith in German efficiency and 19th-century Classical education restored. :-) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 17 '15 at 17:02

The term was invented by Hermann Ebbinghaus around 1892 in conjunction with various papers and writings associated with the Second International Congress of Experimental Psychology in London in August of 1892.

  • That is interesting, can you please post and highlight the relevant extract. – user66974 Sep 17 '15 at 15:30
  • great question, and cool answer – Fattie Sep 17 '15 at 15:35
  • It seems we agree on the timeframe and origin, but not on the attribution. Is there a citation you can find from Ebbinghaus? – choster Sep 17 '15 at 16:41
  • Zeitschrift für Physiologie und Psychologie der Sinnesorgane 1892 – Emma Dash Sep 17 '15 at 16:51

The term is quite Greek word 'απτός' [aptos] meaning 'some or something can be touched. The word 'haptic' [απτικός] means something that can touch. That's for a Greek knowing Greek language well enough. mpapajim

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    That doesn’t answer the question. The question is not about the etymology of the word (that’s given in the question itself), but about when and in which field it was first introduced into English. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 17 '15 at 23:14

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