With the second season of HBO’s Westworld, a new monster has been introduced to haunt our nightmares. Like dementors and walkers (white or otherwise) before them, drone hosts are bogeymen for the modern era.
It’s not just the eerie visual design that sells this particular monster, it’s what they call it. In the Westworld season two premier, the show doesn’t just give these autonomous anthropoids a name, it makes sure to accentuate those two words — “drone host”. The writers clearly think these words are important, but why?
I think it’s because taken together, they are some of the creepiest words in the English language.
Let’s start with the word drone. It conjures images of mindless insects who can attack relentlessly but can’t be reasoned with. Drone is a scary word. Allow me to quote the president of the Association for Drones, er, the Association for “Unmanned Vehicle Systems” International:
“Please, don’t call them drones” ¹
Despite the best efforts of a billion dollar industry, this branding nightmare persists. So powerful is the word.
What about the second part of that near-portmanteau? What about the “host”?
The word “host” in Westworld is much less anondyne and more loaded than in the real world. Thinking of the word ‘host’ in the context of Westworld, we can easily imagine being inviting into someone else’s home, a place where we have less control than we think. Imagine a vampire’s lair or the fly in the spider’s parlor.
Both the words “drone” and “host” also share that long ‘o’ sound that without a Canadian or Minnesotan accent, sounds vaguely creepy. Like an elongated howl or a rustling wind, the sound is subtle and spooky.
You might think that the sound of a word is unimportant, but research suggests otherwise. It’s been a long-standing truth in comedy that ‘k’ sounds are the funniest². Turkey beats ham as a punchiline. Pickle is funnier than cucumber.³ In the same way “zone” is more ominous than “area”. “Host” is creepier than “guest”.
The use of the long ‘o’ to name monsters isn’t even new⁴. When the Jews of Europe were being persecuted in the 19th century, they spread tales of powerful, soundless automatons beyond human control or understanding. They called them Golems. In the 21st century, drone hosts can take their place in the dark recesses or our imagination.
4 — see also “robot”, “zombie”, “cyborg”, “automoton”, “clone”, “bionic anthropod”. All ‘o’ words