satellite

In his prepared statement to Congress of 8 June 2017 (released 7 June), former FBI Director James Comey wrote about a 30 March phone call he had with President Trump:

The President went on to say that if there were some “satellite” associates of his who did something wrong, it would be good to find that out.

Now that’s an unusual use of the word satellite, a fact that Comey was apparently aware of because of his use of quotation marks. The word is most commonly used in the astronomical sense of a body, either natural or artificial, that orbits around another. It’s also used in a political sense of a client-state of a larger power and in a few other senses where one thing is subservient to a larger entity. The word, however, is not typically used to refer to people. But this was not always the case.

The Latin satelles means a courtier or attendant, and Johannes Kepler was the first to use the word to refer to an astronomical body, in particular the moons of Jupiter, which had recently been discovered by Galileo. He writes in his 1611 Dioptrice:

Atq[ue] en inventum Iovi satellitium seniculo vero decrepito duos servos, qui incessum illius adjutent, nunquam a lateribus illius discedentes.

(But behold, the discovery of satellites by Jupiter, like two servants of a feeble old man, which help his march, never departing from his sides.)

This astronomical sense was appearing in English by 1665.

The political sense dates to the late eighteenth century. In his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, Thomas Paine would write:

In no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet; and as England and America, with respect to each Other, reverse the common order of nature, it is evident that they belong to different systems: England to Europe, America to itself.

And in 1800, the former governor of Maryland and U.S. Supreme Court justice Thomas Johnson would write in a letter to President John Adams:

There is a great deal yet to be done to prevent our becoming a mere satellite of a mighty power.

But the original Latin sense of a courtier or attendant has also been used in English. Edward Hall would write in his 1548 The Vnion of the Two Noble and Illustrate Famelies of Lancastre [and] Yorke about King Richard III:

Enuironed with his satellytes and yomen of the crowne.

But this sense didn’t appear again until the end of the eighteenth century, and it became relatively common in the nineteenth. For instance Washington Irving would write in his 1849 Life of Oliver Goldsmith:

Boswell was shortly afterward made happy by an introduction to Johnson, of whom he became the obsequious satellite.

Harriet Beecher Stowe would write in her 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

Legree encouraged his two black satellites to a kind of coarse familiarity with him.

And Anthony Trollope uses the word in this sense in his 1861 Framley Parsonage, when he refers to “satellites of the nursery.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this personal sense in a manner that perfectly fits President Trump’s use of the word:

An attendant upon a person of importance, forming part of his retinue and employed to execute his orders. Often with reproachful connotation, implying subserviency or unscrupulousness in the service.

Now, was Trump harkening back to the obsolescent, nineteenth-century sense, or was he re-coining it? Given his facility for adroit use of language, expertise in Latin, and expansive knowledge of literature, my guess would be the latter.


Sources:

Comey, James. “Statement for the Record.” U. S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 8 June 2017.

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. satellite, n., satelles, n.

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