The Case of the Severed Server

As I mentioned, I’m a Minecraft Forum moderator. This leads to me having to read a lot of thread titles that make me wince. (that’s one of the reasons I started this blog) I suppose in some cases, autocorrect is to blame. It’s very easy to just let it replace what you wrote with what it thinks you meant. (there’s at least one website highlighting some of the more hilarious results) I’ve nearly thrown a mobile device across the room more than once because of its insistence on putting in what it thinks I should be writing; autocorrect systems are definitely not in sync with my vocabulary. But knowing that your software is trying to sabotage you should be more reason to keep a close eye on what you’re actually posting. Of course, this means you have to know what the words are all about to begin with.

Today’s example is a simple one: server.  In the online world, this is an extremely common word. Offline, too, for that matter; it’s sometimes met with in the context of restaurants. And yet I could look at the multiplayer forum for any of the areas I moderate and find at least one instance, in the first page or two, of “sever” where the poster meant “server.”

Let’s take a look at that word: server. It comes apart really easily at the syllable boundary, into serv- and -er. We’ll leave the first part alone for the moment and look at that ending, that -er part.

As a suffix, -er refers to a person or a thing that does something. It’s attached to the root word for whatever the thing is that they’re doing. A driver drives. A watcher watches. A supporter supports. And, of course, a server serves.  If it’s in a restaurant, a server is a person who delivers your meal to your table. In the context of a Web page, a server is a computer that delivers the content you requested. And in a multiplayer game, a server is a computer that delivers information on the current state of the game to your computer. Like the restaurant server and the Web server, it serves.

So what about serv- itself? Where else does it turn up?

It’s found by itself, of course, in the verb serve. If it’s seen without any qualifiers, such as “He served for ten years,” it often means to be a member of the military — to serve one’s country.

We find it in service — the product of serving. Which, by the way, is often abused by the makers of signs in stores who say “We service all our customers….” Nope. You serve your customers; if you’re repairing their devices, you can verb that noun and service those devices. But unless you’re changing the customer’s oil (in which case I really don’t want to know the details) you don’t service the customer! The Customer Service desk is the place where customers are served; the service bay is the garage where their cars are serviced.

It’s in servant, too, a person who serves. That’s a good example, by the way, of the nuances of difference between very similar words. A server (the human kind) is someone who is serving something (almost always food) as a job, one which they don’t take home with them.  A servant, on the other hand, is providing a more general service, and is often a live-in member of a large household’s staff. It has also been used as a euphemism for “slave,” about which more in a future post. There are few servants anymore, but in the days of large houses of the country estate variety, and no labor-saving devices, there were many of them. “Going into service” was a common way of making a living for a young, single person. So even though servants and servers both serve, there are very different connotations to those words.

So there we have it: serv-, to deliver something (like game data), and -er, someone or something that does it. Hence server, something that delivers game data.

That terminal -er in sever, on the other hand, doesn’t mean “one that does something.” It’s simply a part of the word that happens to be er. I should note here that it’s important to recognize when you’re looking at a suffix (the -er of server) and when it’s just pert of the word (the -er of sever). Anyway,  sever comes from the Latin separare — to separate. And when you sever something, you separate it from something else. It means not just to cut something, but to cut it off. You could sever a body part, or a friendship, or even an employee (in which case you might owe them severance pay) but whatever it is, the object is being cut off from something else.

So now you know. You can sever a server (cutting it off from a group of servers, for instance, or from the Internet as a whole) but you can’t play games on a sever.

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