The Literary Origin of the "Taser"

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The taser, the electroshock device used by law enforcement and others as a less-lethal alternative to firearms, is something many of us have a passing familiarity with. Implements such as this are usually named for technical processes they utilize, leading many to conclude that a “taser” is a device which “tases.” Not exactly. The origin of the word “taser” is more surprising.

Jack Cover, a NASA researcher, began developing a “Conducted Electrical Weapon” in 1969 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taser). His parents were both academics. His father was an economics professor at the University of Chicago and his mother earned a Masters in Mathematics from the same institution. Cover was an academic himself, ultimately getting his Ph.D. in physics.

He became interested in an alternative for firearms after reading several accounts of lethal force being used. The direct inspiration came from a news report of a man being stunned but not killed after walking into an electric fence (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/16/us/16cover.html). Since Cover first began development, tasers have become ubiquitous worldwide. But what does “taser” mean, anyway?

Don’t tase me, bro!” became a phrase after University of Florida student Andrew Meyer was shot with a taser by campus security, thus further cementing the pseudo-word “tase” in the popular lexicon. “Taser” comes from Jack Cover’s childhood literary hero, Tom Swift. Swift was the main character in a series of scifi/adventure novels, first introduced in 1910. Originally created by Edward Stratemeyer, more than 100 volumes were written over several decades. The volume titled “Tom Swift And His Electric Rifle” inspired the name. Cover used the phrase “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle,” adding an “A” to make the word easier to pronounce.

So there it is. “Taser” is an acronym inspired by a children’s book. Interestingly, the formal acronym “TASER” lost out to “taser,” probably because the acronym has nothing to do with what the product does. Which brings up the troublesome verb associated with it. It seems most people have assumed “tase” is a word and, through the debauchery of popular usage, so it became. Merriam-Webster includes it in its online dictionary. This bothers me. A LOT! It implies that a taser is a device which tases even though Merriam-Webster doesn’t recognize “tases” as a word and neither does my spell check.

So there it is. “Taser” is an acronym inspired by a children’s book. Interestingly, the formal acronym “TASER” lost out to “taser,” probably because the acronym has nothing to do with what the product does. Which brings up the troublesome verb associated with it. It seems most people have assumed “tase” is a word and, through the debauchery of popular usage, so it became. Merriam-Webster includes it in its online dictionary. This bothers me. A LOT! It implies that a taser is a device which tases even though Merriam-Webster doesn’t recognize “tases” as a word and neither does my spell check.

Shouldn’t it be “tasered?” The verb was derived from the newly-created noun, so it stands to reason that the noun would be left intact and a suffix added to use it as a verb: taser, tasering, tasered. A good comparison is the word “hammer.” A hammer doesn’t “hamm,” it “hammers.” So why would a taser “tase?” Many people will no doubt disagree with me about this. That’s fine. I’m confident that I’ve made a better case than those contending that “tase” should be a word. And if, after giving my perspective honest consideration, you still don’t agree, well, “don’t taser me, bro!”

-Nathan George

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