doomsday device

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jan 19 18:40:33 UTC 2011

OED has "Doomsday machine/bomb" going back to 1960. The current usage
appears to be more common as "doomsday device" and there is a slight
shift in meaning.

Previously--and this is what OED has--"doomsday
machine/device/bomb/weapon" was a contraption capable of destroying the
world (e.g., the world-killer weapons in Star Wars). But Wiki has
something slightly different--along the lines of Dr. Strangelove:

> A weapon (often a bomb) programmed to automatically be used in
> response to certain attacks, usually with very dire consequences (such
> as the annihilation of the world).

Note the "in response to certain attack" part. Compare that to OED
referring to this as definition:

> 1961 New Scientist 26 Oct. 230/1   The Doomsday Machine is a
> hypothetical weapon which is capable of destroying all human life.

But even in the 1960 cite, there is a notion that the device would be
activated in case of a nuclear attack--bringing about a form of détente.

There are also 4 quotations in OED that have nothing to do with
"doomsday machine" but somehow ended up under the heading. Perhaps
they've drifted from somewhere else? Or was this deliberate placement?

> 1649    Milton ????????????? iii. 26   The Kings admirers may..mistake
> this Book for a monument of his worth and wisdom, when as indeed it is
> his Doomsday Booke.
> 1654    J. Trapp Comm. Esther iv. 8   That dreadful day of judgement,
> when that doomes-day book shall be opened.
> 1781    W. Cowper Hope 693   Conscience..writes a Doomsday sentence on
> his heart.
> 1842    C. Whitehead Richard Savage (1845) III. ix. 420   Long
> doomsday faces.

The header is "attrib.  doomsday machine n. (see quot. 1961); also
doomsday bomb", so there is not a lot of wiggle room. "Doomsday Book" is
the Book of Judgment, so it hardly belongs here at all. And the other
two, while responding to "attrib.", have nothing whatsoever to do with
"doomsday machine". In fact, they have completely different
meanings--the latter corresponds to 1.b. (end of the world), while the
former to 1.a. (judgment day).


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