Q From Jonathan McColl: I’ve just replaced the mouse of a colleague’s computer with what the suppliers called an ergonomic mouse, that is, a joystick. I thought how silly they were to invent a long name instead of the well-known one that gamers have used for many years. And that was obviously derived from the steering mechanism that’s been used in aeroplanes for most of the last century. But who named the thing joystick? I strongly suspect wild-living WWI pilots, who used a slang term from their interests in the carnal lusts of the flesh. And it sounds American too. Can you elucidate?
A It sounds highly probable, but the evidence rather points away from that answer, though we can’t be absolutely sure there was no X-rated implication. We do know that the term actually predates World War One and is first recorded from a British source.
In a search for its source some etymologists have been led up a blind alley. Several works on aviation history cite a man named Joyce as the inventor, so that the first form was presumably Joyce stick, later slurred and compressed into joystick. However, nobody who has looked into the matter has been able to find any evidence for the existence of this person (he is sometimes given as James Joyce, but that must be an unconscious transfer of his first name from the author).
The first example known of joystick is in an 1910 entry in the diary of the pioneering British aeronaut Robert Loraine (in that year he made the first radio transmission from an aeroplane and — less significantly, but as an example of the still primitive state of the art — became the first man to land an aeroplane on the Isle of Wight). He wrote: “In order that he shall not blunder inadvertently into the air, the central lever — otherwise the ‘cloche’, or joy-stick is tied well forward”. (Cloche was the then usual French name for the same device, from the bell shape of the base of some early types, especially in the Bleriot monoplane, to which all the control wires were fixed.)
I wonder if the insubstantial Mr Joyce was an attempt by writers to remove any suspicion that there was indeed a sexual element in the choice of term. Some writers on word history have certainly claimed that the shape of the stick and its position between the (always male) pilot’s legs led to the term. But as Mr Loraine’s diary entry shows, the early joysticks were a different shape that may well not have suggested such a link. Joystick is indeed recorded as a slang term for the penis, but it appears in writing for the first time in 1916; this might suggest it was borrowed from the aviation term, not the other way round, though the dates of slang terms are notoriously unreliable.
On balance, it seems more likely that joystick derives from another sense of joy that was around at the time. The closest in time and space was joyride, which appeared in Britain around 1908 for an unauthorised trip in a vehicle; however, the early examples referred to motor vehicles, not aircraft (the latter were so rare and so hard to fly that the opportunity for an outsider to take one for a joyride, or the skill to do so, just didn’t exist). The implication may have been that the aircraft’s control column was the means to the exhilaration felt by an early pilot’s journey into the air, which was always an adventurous undertaking, not to say a hazardous one.