All systems go – except when they don’t

In President Obama’s discussion of the thwarted attack on Flight 253, ‘systemic’ makes headlines.

We have been here before, and it seems like only yesterday. Once again, the lead news story coming out of Christmas was of a young man evidently ready to blow up an airliner in midflight. Once again, an evil purpose was thwarted by the quick thinking and heroic actions of people aboard the aircraft.

Jasper Schuringa, a Dutch filmmaker who was a passenger on Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day, connected the dots very quickly. He heard the pops of small explosions like firecrackers. He spotted their source, and saw a man with fire in his lap. He immediately realized that something terrible was about to happen, and so he tackled Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

A couple of days after Janet Napolitano’s initial assessment that “the system worked,” President Obama forcefully contradicted his secretary of Homeland Security. He called the episode aboard Flight 253 a “systemic failure,” which was “unacceptable.”

Why “systemic”? He needed a word that means “of the whole system.”

System comes from Greek; the presence of the letter “y,” the one the French call “Greek ‘i’ ” is a tip-off. System, in the early 17th century, meant “the whole creation, the universe.” It came from a Greek word, systema, meaning “organized body,” or “whole.” The Greek word derived from a particle sys, meaning “together” – an element that shows up in other words such as synergy (“working together”) or symphony (“sounds together”). The second part of the word, I find from consulting the Online Etymology Dictionary, comes from root of histanai, “to cause to stand.” This root has relatives across the Indo-European family of languages, including, in fact, our own English stand.

So a system is a group of things or elements or principles or ideas that stand together, or hang together into a coherent whole. This usage, going back to the 1630s, is almost as old, as far as the “universal” sense of system. Thus we have the Solar System, the Dewey Decimal System for organizing books, or even various hair-care or skin-care “systems.”

Particularly during the late 19th century, “the system” or “the human system” was a way to refer to the human body. This usage lives on when we speak, concretely or more metaphorically, of “getting something out of one’s system.”

Systematic is the adjective formed from system. It’s defined as “of or pertaining to a system.” But it’s not a neutral word; it suggests order, method. A “systematic failure” sounds like one brought about by orderly, methodical effort.

Hence the (perceived?) need for systemic. It’s a much newer word. It emerged in the first years of the 19th century, a coinage used within the fields of medicine and biology to mean simply “of the system,” especially a bodily system, without the additional layer of meaning that systematic had acquired by then. If we didn’t already have systemic, Mr. Obama might have spoken simply of a “system failure.”

By the time you see this, Dear Reader, the Transportation Security Administration may have us all flying from one point to another in giant see-through Glad Bags, the better to keep us from stitching explosives into our unmentionables.

But when all else fails, a group of engaged, alert airline passengers standing together to tackle a problem sounds like a pretty good system to me.

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