From the current 2017’s Xbox One X and 2016’s PlayStation 4 Pro, stretching all the way back to the Magnavox Odyssey in 1972, it’s hard to imagine playing a video game without today’s word, but today’s term is about so much more than just electronic entertainment. It’s been used by daredevils at the highest of altitudes, in basic, utilitarian applications, and plumbed the depths of our lowest ebbs.
Whether joined or hyphenated, our word is the product of combining joy, coming from the Old French joie and meaning ‘a feeling of pleasure and delight’, and stick, meaning a ‘rod or peg’ and coming from the Old English sticca, which is derived from the Proto-Germanic stikkon-. Joined together, this ‘stick that evokes feelings of pleasure or enjoyment’, was first recorded in pioneer aviator Robert Loraine’s Diary entry from 9 April 1910, where he writes that: “In order that he shall not blunder inadvertently into the air, the central lever—otherwise the cloche [French for bell, resembling the shape of the base of the steering column], or joy-stick is tied well forward.” Essentially, the steering mechanism (joy-stick) is equated with the pleasure/thrill of the experience of flying, much in the same way that a joy-ride (which was first used in 1909) implies the pleasure and entertainment of taking a trip.
For the first couple of decades, the use of this term was strictly aeronautical and used to denote the central steering column, as can be seen in modernist poet Wystan Auden’s The Orators (1932), where, in “Journal of an Airman”, he mentions: “Joystick—Pivot of power And responder to pressure And grip for the glove.”
Soon though, the term began becoming generalized and applied to a number of different applications, beginning in 1936, with the journal American Speech noting a new and sinister usage for our word, based on its resemblance: “Joy stick, an opium pipe.”
Thankfully, joystick soon emerged from the depths to reclaim its former usage of steering and direction, but, as we can see in 1948, via Eric Partridge’s “Air Force Slang” section of A Dictionary of Forces’ Slang: 1939-1945, the term was now being applied by air forces to ground forces, mentioning: “Joysticks, the two levers by which the steering of tanks and some other tracked vehicles was controlled.”
As the world moved on from World War 2 and the Atomic Age began, joysticks moved beyond their traditional military and aviation applications, now being applied to civilian technology and industry. This can be seen in the 1952 compilation of papers from the Conferences of Cranfield by Arnold Tustin, titled Automatic and Manual Control, where it is logged that: “Both hands held at approximately elbow height a joystick that could be rotated or deflected about a universal coupling, to control the spot movement in elevation and traverse.”
While these uses of the word are highly important – many civilian and military cockpits still employ a joystick (either in the centre or on the side) – there’s no doubting that the word has received its most widespread usage thanks to video games. First applied to gaming by Ralph H. Baer, who created the first joystick in 1967, they were the easiest way to control both the horizontal and vertical position of a dot on the screen; however, the first usage of this joystick in a video game would have to wait for the release of Sega’s arcade game Missile in 1969. Within a decade of this, we would begin to see the revolution that would lead us to home computer and video game consoles, culminating with this all-too-familiar quote from Personal Computer World in 1985: “The game is joystick-controlled and has three skill levels.”