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Can you have engineering with no engine?

Engineering is all around us, but let’s not forget its warlike roots.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Cars cross the Brooklyn Bridge as the sun sets on lower Manhattan in New York.

A few weeks ago this column noted a new usage of editing. First it meant the work of publishers. Later it meant the work of those who prepare materials for publishing. Now editing has come to mean the work of change agents of all types, including those modifying human genes. It’s a usage adopted by a range of news media but not widely reflected – yet – in dictionaries.

At dinner recently, a fellow wordsmith who had seen the column gently pointed out another aspect of this usage: People say “gene editing” as an alternative to speaking of “genetic engineering.” And that, she said, makes people more comfortable with the idea.

And it made her, I sensed, a little less comfortable with it – whatever it’s called. She’s not the only one. James Clapper, US director of national intelligence, last month added gene editing to a list of threats posed by “weapons of mass destruction and proliferation.”

That takes this particular kind of editing, or engineering, into a military context of a sort – which is where engineering began, etymologically speaking.

Engine came into English around 1300, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, to mean a “ ‘mechanical device,’ especially one used in war.” The word also covered a range of abstract meanings from positive to negative: “skill, craft, innate ability; deceitfulness, trickery.”

Engineer came into the language around 1350 to mean a “constructor of military engines,” which in those days meant things like battering rams. (Think of Leonardo da Vinci asking the Duke of Milan for a job as a military engineer. Even for a universal genius, government work sometimes pays more than art.)

The Latin root here is ingenium, meaning “inborn qualities, talent.” I’m not altogether happy, Dear Reader, drawing a straight line from the genial spark this suggests to the construction of battering rams and torture devices, but that’s where the sources lead.

During the 19th century, engineer caught on to mean a constructor of great public works. Think of the Roeblings, builders of the Brooklyn Bridge and other mighty spans, or the Brunels in Britain, building bridges of their own and tunneling under the Thames. In the sense of “locomotive driver,” an American usage, engineer goes back to 1832.

Engineer as a verb meaning to “act as an engineer” emerged in the 19th century. By midcentury it had acquired a figurative sense of arranging, contriving, guiding, or managing, by ingenuity or tact, originally in a political context, the Online Etymology Dictionary reports.

But that figurative meaning has its dark side. Sometimes it’s more “conniving” than “contriving.” Social engineering for instance, can refer to public officials or others who try to change people’s behavior, or to computer hackers who trick their targets into volunteering private data.

Not all engineering involves actual engines, but it sometimes involves some nefarious activities. And that, I think, is what troubled my wordsmith friend.

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