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Wednesday, November 21, 2012


            The term system originates from the Ancient Greek word σύστημα (organised whole), which itself is derived from the base of σύν (with) and στάναι (set up). Today’s prevalent definition, as provided by the Oxford English Dictionary, defines system as “set or assemblage of things connected, associated, or interdependent, so as to form a complex unity; a whole composed of parts in orderly arrangement according to some scheme or plan” (1).  It can also be used to refer to the set of principles to form a scheme or method (1). Not much has changed in the meaning of the term since its origin; the word system has always dealt with interconnected things, and the nebulous nature of its definition has resulted in a multiplicity of applications and variations of the term. 

Although system is a noun, the word by itself has no inherent meaning. It requires a prefix to qualify meaning, and that prefix can be anything. Every existing physical and non-physical thing discovered or created is composed of sets of smaller things; anything and everything is a system. A shoe system consists of leather, fabric, and rubber. In this view, where the focus of system is on the resulting whole; the word becomes a hollow and self-descriptive suffix—meaningless and redundant. It does sound impressive though. The reason for the concept of a system is then, not to describe the whole, but rather to describe the compositional elements and their interactions within the whole; the use of system is validated when there actually is a greater organisation and relationship between things—a collection of rules and protocols that bind things together. 

Without a prefix or qualifier, system can still have meaning if there is a predefined context in which the word is used. In such cases, the system becomes the System. It is usually the overarching system. In biology, the System is the organism. In computer science, the System is the hardware and software working together in a computer. In management science, the System (that disgruntled people rebel against) is the structure resulting from all the rules, social orders, and people within a bureaucracy.  

The application of the word, system, implies a deeper sense of complexity and interconnectedness within an idea. This word is usually abused.

1.     "system, n". OED Online. September 2012. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/196665 (accessed November 21, 2012).

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