Pod people

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Today's xkcd:

Mouseover title: "Canada's travel restrictions on the US are 99% about keeping out COVID and 1% about keeping out people who say 'pod.'"

Probably the people who chose and promoted the term (pandemic) pod had forgotten about the 1956 movie or its remakes. At least I hope so.

But more seriously, pod has been used for some time to refer to something like "a small group space defined by some semi-durable common purpose", e.g. here or here; and then by extension to a group that regularly uses such a space.

And this seems to derive from a purely spatial use, at least initially constrained by a seed-pod-like shape, that arose in the middle of the 20th century. The OED gives the gloss "A detachable or self-contained compartment on an aircraft, spacecraft, or other vehicle or vessel, esp. one with a particular function. Also: any discrete unit, often having a rounded shape, which forms a separate or detachable part of a larger structure. Frequently with modifying word", with citations back to 1950:

1950 J. V. Casamassa Jet Aircraft Power Syst. 318 Jet pods are mounted beneath the wings.
1963 New Scientist 9 May 320/3 Rides are being ‘hitch-hiked’ on Atlas rockets for pods of space instruments.
1971 Times 11 Mar. 11/7 Each room—or suite of rooms—has its own bathroom ‘pod’.
1973 Sci. Amer. Aug. 13/1 A rotating radome, or radar pod, is mounted on two struts above the rear section of the fuselage.
1988 Def. & Foreign Affairs (Nexis) Oct.–Nov. 50 (table) MK.32 underwing pods for B.707 (Flight Refueling).
1998 Press & Jrnl. (Aberdeen) (Nexis) 16 Nov. (Business section) 1 An Azipod resembles the external clip-on electric motor/battery pods which have been used for many years on toy boats for children.
2001 Leaf-Chronicle (Clarksville, Tennessee) (Nexis) 20 Mar. 1 a The sheriff fired him..because he ‘aimed and dry fired’ a high-powered rifle..into the prisoner pods at the jail.

And of course there was (and is) the iPod



  1. Annie Gottlieb said,

    July 30, 2020 @ 6:46 am

    No, silly! It comes from a pod of whales!

  2. bks said,

    July 30, 2020 @ 7:29 am

    How do the Canadians feel about "granfalloon"?

  3. Ross Presser said,

    July 30, 2020 @ 7:30 am

    Any connection with an Apple product is reason enough for the stem to be banished to the dustbin of linguistics. Henceforth I'm calling them a "wetherd" of whales. /s

  4. KeithB said,

    July 30, 2020 @ 8:48 am

    Here at Sandia I work in a pod. It seems to be a self-contained suite of offices with limited* access.

    *Limited in both senses. My pod has only one entry door, and electronic and mechanical locks to limit who can get in.

  5. Tim Leonard said,

    July 30, 2020 @ 9:06 am

    "Escape pod" goes back at least to Star Wars (1977).

  6. Bloix said,

    July 30, 2020 @ 9:25 am

    Mark wrote a post a few years back, also keying off an xkcd cartoon, that went off in comments in a number of directions, including the etymologies of pod, iPod, podcast. He left a comment to a comment in that thread in which he used the memorable phrase "the dungeons of etymology," which I took issue with.

  7. Robert Coren said,

    July 30, 2020 @ 9:29 am

    @bks: If you admit "granfaloon" you have to recognize "karass" as well. no?

    @Tim Leonard: "Open the pod bay door, Hal." 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

  8. Ted McClure said,

    July 30, 2020 @ 10:29 am

    Pod of peas?

  9. Michael said,

    July 30, 2020 @ 12:44 pm

    1. There have been (at least) two sci fi movies named "Lifepod," in 1981 and 1993, the latter being a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat," set in outer space.
    2. The earliest reference to an "escape pod" found on Wikipedia is to a 1966 episode of "Thunderbirds Are Go." I would bet they existed in sf literature much earlier than that, but I recall an instance offhand.

  10. Bloix said,

    July 30, 2020 @ 12:55 pm

    "While waiting for air pressure to equalize he lowered the little air-car from its pod …"
    – The Killing Machine, by Jack Vance (c) 1964

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    July 30, 2020 @ 1:42 pm

    1948, Technical Note – National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics

    The space available for the accommodation of passengers or cargo was computed for each of the three types of … airplanes was assumed to be within the wing inasmuch as the tailless airplanes had no fuselage or "pod" and storage in …

  12. ktschwarz said,

    July 30, 2020 @ 1:50 pm

    Science fiction originally got "escape pod" from aviation. "Escape Pod Fired from Jet: Fliers of tomorrow's supersonic planes will catapult to safety enclosed in armor plate like a seed in a pod" — Popular Science, May 1952

  13. Rick Rubenstein said,

    July 30, 2020 @ 5:33 pm

    "I'm sorry Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."
    [Rolling eyes] "Fine, HAL, open the BUBBLE bay doors."
    "Of course, Dave."

  14. Terry Hunt said,

    July 30, 2020 @ 7:54 pm

    @ Rick Rubenstein

    No, no! It's "Fine, HAL, Simon says 'open the BUBBLE bay doors.'"

  15. Eli Albert said,

    July 31, 2020 @ 12:07 pm

    but what about a SQUAD?

  16. AntC said,

    July 31, 2020 @ 4:49 pm

    Ah, I thought the linguistic point was going to be about the phrasal verb 'bubble with'. Is that a neologism, or did it pass me by?

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    August 2, 2020 @ 11:26 am

    It ("to bubble with") meant nothing to me when I first read it, but I then encountered it in a newspaper article and realised that, as usual, language is evolving even as I write. I must confess, though, that I still tend to dismiss 99%+ of all new usages as being more an indication of people's desire to appear "trendy" than of the identification of a real lacuna in our language.

  18. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 2, 2020 @ 11:30 am

    Coming to this late… I wrote a Wall Street Journal column a few weeks ago on pod and related terms. Here's the text.

    When historians and sociologists look back on the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, they’ll have to explain how we ended up with headlines like this one, from the parenting website What’s Up Moms: “Why I Decided to ‘Pod Up’—And How It’s Saving Me.”

    In the article, writer Abigail Rasminsky details how her family made the decision to join up with two other households to form a “quarantine pod.” “When close family friends approached us about forming a pod with them and another family—what would essentially be an extension of the closed family unit—we said we’d consider it,” Ms. Rasminsky writes. Despite initial anxieties, the families learned to love the new living arrangement, with the children dubbing themselves “The Pod Squad.”

    When this shared approach to self-isolation started taking off this spring, the new type of social agglomeration went by many names. “Call it your cohort, your pod, your bubble, your squad, or your quaranteam,” began a how-to guide from CNN in April. “Whatever you call it, forming a group to go through the next few months could be key to getting through the summer with your mental health intact.” Of these novel names, “pod” appears to be taking the lead in popularity, even generating verb forms like “podding” or “podding up.”

    The terse term “pod” entered the English language in the mid-16th century to refer to the long, narrow part of plants such as beans and peas that contain the seeds. While the roots of the word are uncertain, it may have come about from clipping a longer word like “podder” or “podware,” regionalisms in England for field crops and their seed grains. Later, “two peas in a pod” became a handy idiom for people or things that are so similar as to be indistinguishable.

    From these leguminous origins, “pod” got extended to other types of cozy compartments. Starting in the 1950s, “pod” could be used for a detachable module on an aircraft, such as one that encloses a jet engine, cargo or fuel. The ’50s also ushered in a more ominous kind of “pod”: In the movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” aliens are able to replace humans with exact replicas by growing them in giant pods. That eerie vision introduced the phrase “pod people” into the lexicon to label those who display soulless conformity.

    Another sci-fi classic, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” featured round, white extravehicular pods on its spacecraft, leading to the famous line, “Open the pod bay doors, HAL,” in astronaut David Bowman’s tense standoff with the HAL 9000 computer. Those pods ended up inspiring Vinnie Chieco, a freelance copywriter tasked with naming a new portable media player introduced by Apple in the nonfictional year of 2001. He suggested calling it “the iPod.” The runaway success of the iPod inspired novel coinages like “podcast,” blending the name of the device with “broadcast.” Podcasts in turn were so successful that now you often hear them simply called “pods.”

    In the age of coronavirus, sterilized “isolation pods” were employed early on by hospitals as a safety measure to treat Covid-19 patients. But that term took on a new meaning as people tried to make sense of how to live under lockdowns. On March 15, the Twitter account “two moms in an isolation pod” kicked off with its first message: “How to keep our sanity with five children between us? Shared isolation pod. Shared live tweeting.” A few days later, pop singer Harry Styles said in an interview that he was “with friends in our little safe self-isolation pod.”

    The shorter form “pod” showed up soon thereafter. For instance, the Calgary game designer Matt Hayles tweeted on March 24, “I’m hearing from people who are calling this their ‘Pod’ or ‘Quaranteam,’ which is A++ language-ing.” With households partnering up, news outlets like The Guardian began providing guides for “podding successfully.” If you do decide to “pod up,” make sure you choose your pod-mates well.

  19. Philip Anderson said,

    August 2, 2020 @ 6:00 pm

    @Ben Zimmer:
    I was surprised to see The Guardian mentioned, since in my experience “(support) bubble” is the ubiquitous term in Britain, e.g. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jun/18/support-bubbles-to-shagbubbles-bubble-is-the-go-to-word-of-2020?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

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