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Foreword: Please excuse me if some of the tags that I've attached to this question are inapplicable. I'm just trying to make sure I've covered all my bases.

According to every dictionary that I've come across, as well as all professional sources of relevance to the topic, the word "drone" in the context of a eusocial species is only properly used when referring to the fertile male caste of bees, ants, and wasps.

However, somehow the word has gained a very different meaning when it comes to fictional eusocial species, where it now serves as a presumably "cooler"/exotic-sounding synonym to what real-life biology knows as the "worker" caste, while males (if they even exist) are never referred to as "drones"; this even extends to examples where the species is obviously based on bees/ants/wasps.

How did this come to be? Might it be related to the fact that "drone" can also mean "one who performs menial or tedious work" or "drudge", i.e. "a person who works in a low servile job"? (I rarely see the word being used in this way, though; the first time I remember seeing such usage is in Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, as a term for the working-class citizens of one's faction.)

  • I'm not familiar with the game, but according to the wiki: A disgruntled citizen is a drone, shown as red in the base menu, instead of their usual image. If even one citizen is still a drone when the next turn starts, whatever base they are in has a "drone riot" and shuts down completely until you fix the problem, then it turns back to normal the following turn. It seems to me like your "workers" aren't getting any work done if they're rioting. Could you provide another example, preferably an insect one? – Laurel Sep 5 '17 at 20:20
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    I don't really understand the question. If you know that in real life a drone can mean someone doing menial work, then how is this usage in fiction (which seems to be all you're asking about) anything but the same usage?? – AmE speaker Sep 5 '17 at 20:38
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    The better question seems to me to be how did drone (which in a eusocial species does no "physical labor" or work) ever get applied to a worker, in any context. – AmE speaker Sep 5 '17 at 20:39
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    "Drone" refers, of course, to the males of bees and other insects who do not participate greatly in nest tending or nectar gathering and hence might be regarded as "lazy". (And, we might note, most of the labor falls on the infertile female "worker" bees.) Best I can figure, the switch in meaning of "drone" is due to the fact that (to humans) the drone bee's life appears to be dull and uninteresting (and of little purpose). Yes, they do participate in the occasional fertilization of a queen, but that's a relatively rare event. – Hot Licks Sep 6 '17 at 0:57
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This could be a case of object abstraction in linguistics: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abstraction_(linguistics)

"Object abstraction, or simply abstraction, is a concept wherein terms for objects become used for more abstract concepts, which in some languages develop into further abstractions such as verbs and grammatical words (grammaticalisation). Abstraction is common in human language, though it manifests in different ways for different languages."

In this case the original description refers to a biological drone, which as you indicate appears to be in the case of bees, a male whose only purpose is to reproduce. This male bee has an apparent "boring"(?!) task but it is done from hive to hive, it is not static.

I think there was a conflation in recent times of "drone" and "worker bee" to indicate humans performing repetitive, tedious, menial or meaningless tasks within a powerful hive-like modern society ruled by the "elite". Obviously the parallels between modern urban transportation systems and bee colonies and activities helped!

(I have to credit Jon Rappoport on a Jeff Rense show... he refers to this w.r.t. the word "reject" which he says came from the literal Latin word for throwing back a spear. This was then abstracted to indicate "throwing back" something you don't like, or something else which was not physical nor a weapon of sorts.)

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