Word of the Week, 1/30/12 – 2/3/2012 — rotary

ro·ta·ry, adj., n., pl. -ries  —adj.  1. turning like a top or a wheel; rotating. 2. (of motion) circular: In the windmills that operate pumps the rotary motion must be changed into reciprocating (back-and-forth) motion (Beauchamp, Mayfield, and West).  3. having parts that rotate.  4. of or having to do with a rotary aircraft engine.  —n.  1. a rotary engine or machine.   2.Especially U.S. and Canada. a traffic circle.  3. Electricity. a synchronous converter.  [< Medieval Latin rotarius < Latin  rota wheel]

~ The World Book Dictionary

The word rotary is obviously related to words like rotation and rota, all of which share the Latin rota, or wheel, as their origin.  The rotary in mechanics is a fundamental simple machine used in any number of technologies.  It is also the symbol for the service organization, Rotary International.  Curiously, while the organization’s first construction, organized on February 23, 1905–a Rotary club in Chicago–called itself a “Rotary club”, the initial attempt at a symbol was, in fact, a wagon wheel.  The club called itself the Rotary club because the meetings rotated among the members’ offices.  The early wagon wheel symbol, introduced in Chicago, illustrated “civilization and movement.”

The first Rotary club was founded by Paul Harris who sought to create a professional organization with the same friendly spirit as the small town in which he had grown up.  Within a decade, clubs had spread all over the country and by 1921 Rotary had expanded to six continents, requiring the name change to Rotary International in the following year.  It is also in 1922 when a universal Rotary symbol was thought to be required and in 1923 the current rotary wheel was adopted: 24 cogs, six spokes, and later modified on the advice of engineers to include a “keyway” in the center of the gear to attach it to a power shaft, making the rotary mechanically sound.

Soon the organization grew towards an added mission of philanthropy beyond serving club members’ professional and social interests (though that continues through regular weekly program meetings).  Over the years, its motto would be refined to “Service above Self.”  By 1932, one Rotarian, Herbert J. Taylor, created “The Four Way Test” which would eventually be adopted as the Rotary International’s code of ethics:

Of the things we think, say or do

  1. Is it the TRUTH?
  2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

While many service and civic organizations would grow up after Rotary, they have since lost membership, which has steadily declined since the advent of television–yes, that long ago.  Rotary continues to have extremely robust membership, though, like others, much of its growth has come internationally.  Still, Rotary’s U.S. membership exceeds most other groups combined total membership.

While Rotary clubs devote themselves to their community, they also look to make an impact abroad, and one of the most momentous decisions made a few decades ago was to give a gift to the world in time for the 100th anniversary.  The goal was to eradicate polio in the world.  While 2005 came and went, as of today there are only 4 countries left with continuous polio cases: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, India.  (If you click on this link:  http://vimeo.com/31028535, you can learn more about the nitty-gritty details behind polio eradication.)  This has been achievable with Rotary clubs based throughout the world, including clubs in developing countries, that have been the manpower onsite to help distribute the vaccines in concert with Rotarians worldwide who are donating and fundraising.

The symbol of the rotary wheel for Rotary International, takes on new meaning as the clubs have reached out to donate locally and internationally for projects, such as Books for International Goodwill, clean water projects, and literacy programs, international clubs are now returning the favor by supporting and donating to local Rotary projects in our own communities.  The symbol continues to reflect continuous giving and support with the ideal of Service above Self.

Click on this link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6lNHtpUgw4 to see a common local Rotary activity–handing out dictionaries to 3rd graders.


  1. History of Rotary, Rotary International website
  2. The ABCs of Rotary, Rotary International publication
  3. Bowling Alone in America, Robert Putnam
  4. Polio publications from Rotary International (see link above)

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Filed under Historian's Journal, Word of the Week

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