The wonders of the verb "deploy"

deployed-aichi.JPGEvery time I see or hear the word deploy it surprises me. Maybe that's because I didn't notice it until about 10 years ago. That says something about my upbringing: with a pacifist Dad, I have never been madly interested in war games, war history, war strategy or indeed war. And it also says something about the word, which has only escaped into civilian society in our lifetime.

The Webopedia Computer Dictionary defined the word thus in July 2003:

(v.) To install, test and implement a computer system or application. The term can be used to refer to any installation and testing, such as setting up a new network in an enterprise, to installing a server farm, to implementing a new application over a distributed computing network.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary has the more common, non-computer definition.

transitive verb
1 a : to extend (a military unit) especially in width b : to place in battle formation or appropriate positions
2 : to spread out, utilize, or arrange for a deliberate purpose
intransitive verb : to move, spread out, or function while being deployed

Deploy originates from the French word déployer, meaning to unfold. It evokes a picture of infantry troops marching towards a battle location in neatly aligned rows, which then unfold into wiggly lines spreading in both directions.

I have been confused by this word because it is often "wrongly" used—that is, the meaning is changing. I couldn't understand why we needed this word, which is so often interchangeable with use or send. That's because people often use deploy to refer to a single employee, who cannot unfold as troops can.

For example, last week a police superintendent made the following statement about a Christchurch police officer who fatally shot a man wielding a hammer:

He will return to work after a couple of weeks, but we don't know where he will be deployed. Obviously not on the front line.

I'm not sure the police officer will be ready for any kind of work if after two weeks he needs to be unfolded.

Deploy is a perfect example of kinetic onomatopoeia (if I may coin a term). To say de, the mouth goes narrow and smiley. To say ploy, the mouth must first close for the p and unfold like a tulip to enable loy to escape. The word unfolds.

The image shows Italian models deployed at the Aichi Expo.

Merriam-Webster definition of deploy
Webopedia definition of deploy

Rachel McAlpine
Rachel McAlpine


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