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This quarter we have less of a demystifier article and veer more towards philosophy. Because we all know what the word hybrid means, right? Or at least we think we do and therein lies the challenge for the word hybrid in 2019: it’s become a buzzword.

Michelle Kiener ABB Review Baden-Daettwil, Switzerland, michelle.kiener@ch.abb.com

Type the word hybrid into google and the first thing that comes back is a definition for a hybrid vehicle. In fact, I conducted a small informal survey for this Buzzword Demystifyer. I asked people “What’s the first thing that comes into your head when I say hybrid?” and nearly everyone replied “cars”.

But hybrid is so much bigger than that. The trigger for hybrid as a buzzword topic came from your author walking past a bicycle shop and seeing some e-bikes labelled “hybrid bikes”. As an owner of both a hybrid car and an e-bike the labels caught my eye. I excitedly deviated from my intended food shopping objective to find out more. I was expecting to be amongst the first to see e-bikes with energy recovery, a hybrid of my car and my bike in fact. Instead, I found out that the hybrid aspect of these hybrid e-bikes was that they are a mix of a road bike and a mountain bike.

I haven’t even defined my hybrid car correctly above. Despite the very nature of the technology demanding that my car be quite light, it’s a “heavy hybrid” that has a petrol and an electric motor and uses energy recovery to charge the battery. As opposed to a plug-in hybrid, which is helpfully named to clarify that it must be plugged in to charge its battery. So I made a heavy hybrid assumption about the hybrid e-bikes. A plug-in hybrid owner may not have jumped to the same conclusion. And the word hybrid means something else entirely to keen gardeners. The roses at the start of this article are hybrid tea roses →1.

01 A hybrid – the Chrysler Imperial hybrid tea rose.
01 A hybrid – the Chrysler Imperial hybrid tea rose.

From the Latin hybrida, a variant of ibrida “mongrel,” specifically meaning “offspring of a tame sow and a wild boar”, the word hybrid seemed to first emerge in c. 1600 and was used to refer to the “offspring of plants or animals of a different variety or species”. Around about 2002 hybrid started being used as a short form of hybrid vehicle [1].

The Merriam Webster dictionary [2] defines Hybrid as:

1 an offspring of two animals or plants of different races, breeds, varieties, species, or genera a hybrid of two roses
2 a person whose background is a blend of two diverse cultures or traditions
3a something heterogeneous in origin or composition: composite
3b something (such as a power plant, vehicle, or electronic circuit) that has two different types of components performing essentially the same function

To be fair to the bicycle sellers, who I thought were perhaps being rather cheeky and jumping on the hybrid bandwagon to lure people in, perhaps I should have checked Wikipedia first [3]. There, in addition to the expected definitions of hybrid for biology (think of the tea roses above) hybrid vehicle, plug-in hybrid and hybrid train there, indeed, was hybrid bicycle, defined as “a bicycle with features of road and mountain bikes”. But in addition was a fascinating list including, for example, hybrid library, hybrid market, hybrid gemstone and, of course, hybrid word. All perfectly valid uses of hybrid, but since 2002 becoming increasingly overshadowed by the shortening of hybrid vehicle to just hybrid.

02 Not a hybrid – the Chrysler Imperial car.
02 Not a hybrid – the Chrysler Imperial car.

And therein lies the modern challenge for the word hybrid. No longer restricted to sows and boars it is now, either overused or the victim of a narrow assumption. In the world of technology hybrid has, in some ways, fallen victim to the “apple phenomena”: first there was the iMac, then the iBook, followed by iPod, iPhone and iPad. Now, businesses who’d like to imply the same innovation and design chic put i in front of their product name, technology based or not. I’ve even seen an iUmbrella. In the technology arena some use the word hybrid to imply environmental benefit, true or otherwise, and at the same time some of us see the word hybrid and make assumptions about the product, its behavior and benefits. As always in life hybrid now essentially boils down to “always check the small print”. Otherwise you may take delivery of a bargain Hybrid Chrysler Imperial that you have to plant in your garden, rather than park in your garage →2. 

[1] Online Etymology Dictionary “hybrid (n.)” [online]. Available: https://www.etymonline.com/word/hybrid [Accessed: July 6, 2019].
[2] Merriam-Webster “hybrid” [online]. Available: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hybrid [Accessed: July 25, 2019].
[3] Wikipedia “Hybrid” [online]. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hybrid [Accessed: July 23, 2019].


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