helicopter, helix, pterodactyl

Police use helicopters, but the etymology of helicopter has nothing to do with cops, but rather with fliers of the Jurassic period. It’s helico – pter, from the Greek ἕλικος (elikos) ‘spiral’ + πτερόν (pteron) ‘wing.’

In 1861    G. L. M. de Ponton obtained a British patent for and “aerostatical apparatus (which I intend denominating aeronef or helicoptere,) [which would ascend] by means of two or more superposed horizontal helixes combined together.”

ἕλικος is also the source of the word helix.

The  -pter in helicopter is the same as the –pter in pterodactyl. The prehistoric flying reptile is “wing-fingered.” It gets its name from πτερόν + dactyl, the combining form of δάκτυλος  (dactylos) ‘finger.’  In 1829 geologist Charles Lyell noted that Mary Anning had discovered a new “Pterodactyle of Lyme.”

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Lexie Kahn: Word Snooper is a blog about words and their origins at WordSnooper.com.
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5 Responses to helicopter, helix, pterodactyl

  1. Because Greek has some consonant combinations that are rare or don’t exist in native English words, we sometimes incorrectly segment words of Greek origin. As you pointed out with helicopter, the correct segmentation is helico + pter rather than heli + copter. Another such word is amnesia, which breaks into a 'not' + mnesia 'remembering.' One from Latin is pregnant, which is not preg + nant but pre 'before' + gnant 'giving birth.'</

  2. Just saying says:

    In Greek ‘helicos’ or ‘helikos’ (ἕλικος) is the genitive case (GEN) form of ‘helix’ (ἕλιξ).
    In Greek the general rule (yes it’s language stuff, so there are exceptions) to form new words, compound or not, is to take the stem of the oblique or “oblique” cases (plagiai ptoseis; one of whom is genitive) of the word(s).
    Just saying…

  3. Thanks, just saying. Are you just saying Ponton should have coined the word for “spiral winged” differently? How would you have done it?

  4. Just saying 2 says:

    No, Just saying is just saying, among other things, that “from the Greek ἕλικος (elikos) ‘spiral’” and “ἕλικος is also the source of the word heli” are wrong or inaccurate.
    The Greek word and its base form (i.e. NOM form) -whence English ‘helix’ derives, in essence verbatim- is ἕλιξ helix, while ἕλικος helikos (don’t forget the ‘h’) is its GEN form.
    English ‘heli’ (and ‘copter’ and so on) on the other hand is just a coined word/form based on a wrong etymology etc., due to opaqueness etc..
    Your text in effect rightly claims that the etymology is wrong but explains it in a wrong or inaccurate way.

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