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All systems go – except when they don’t

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

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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.


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