Wednesday, February 09, 2011


Mike called in last Tuesday to reminisce about Tony Randall’s frequent appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Mike has fond memories of their discussions of interesting words. One word was helicopter, and what Mike specifically remembers is Randall commenting that most people would mistakenly split it into the word parts heli- and –copter. In reality, the division should be helico- and –pter.

Helico comes from the Greek ἕλικος (helikos), spiral. Pter comes from the Greek πτερόν (pteron), wing. I was surprised by how old the concept of helicopter flight is. Here are a few citations from the Oxford English Dictionary.

  • 1861: [G. L. M. de Ponton] “The required ascensional motion is given to my aerostatical apparatus (which I intend denominating aeronef or helicoptere,) by means of two or more superposed horizontal helixes combined together.”
  • 1887: [Jules Verne] “We can look forward to such contrivances (which we can call streophores, helicopters, orthopters) by means of which man will become the master of space.
  • 1908: [ Orville & Wilbur Wright] “Several years later we began building these hélicoptères for ourselves.”
  • 1921: [Glasgow Herald] “Recently the Aero Club of France offered a prize to the first helicopter pilot in France to take a machine 25 metres up in the air.”

SIDEBAR: Helicopter development

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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