The Name Game

Learning — and understanding — aviation speak

December 1, 2002

It was back in the early 1980s when I decided to take flying lessons. The first thing on my first lesson that my first instructor did was to show me how to perform a walkaround on the Cessna 150. "...And this is the empennage," he said, lightly rolling his fingers along the bottom of the, er, empennage. "Tap it a little just in case a mechanic leaves a tool or something inside that could jam the rudder cables, and that way you'll hear it rattle. But not too hard. You don't want to set off the ELT."

"What's that?" I asked.

"The emergency locator transmitter," he said. "It goes off in a crash and allows rescuers to find the airplane."

"No — I meant empennage. What's that?"

"Oh, that — that's French," he explained. Then he squatted down to show me the tail's tiedown rope and the bolts holding on the elevator.

About a week later, working at my first journalism job in Kansas City, Missouri (as editorial assistant for Milling and Baking News magazine), I grew weary proofing news copy about twin-screw extruders (the machines that inject jelly into jelly doughnuts) and I looked up empennage in Webster's Third International Dictionary. Turns out it was indeed French (my instructor was right!) and it literally meant feathers of the arrow. In English it was defined as the tail of an airplane.

In my spare time, and there was lots of that, I discovered that the names of most of the basic parts of an airplane are French. Mainly because the French claim that they were first in flight — what with the Montgolfier brothers and all in 1783. And let's face it, the Wright brothers really weren't that creative when it came to naming names. Flyer, for example, wing warping, and flying machine — shortened to machine. Yawn.

Sure, the boys came up with an interesting term or two that has stuck to this day. To protect their soon-to-be historic 1903 machine from Kitty Hawk's sandblasting wind, they built a small shed. They jokingly referred to it as the hand car, since they were somewhat familiar with French and planned to sell their machine in France if the American government turned it down.

In French, hangar ( hand car) means shed. (I've seen a hangar or two opulent enough to put my apartment to shame.) And in a letter dated June 1904 Wilbur wrote to a friend, "After about 200 feet, [Orville] allowed the machine to turn up a little too much and it stalled." Now every cub reporter covering an accident thinks a stall has to do with the engine. To paraphrase a former president: It's the wing, stupid.

While the word aviation comes from the Latin avis for bird (or car rental company — take your pick), airplane seems to be a combination of the Greek aer for air and the Latin planus for flat surface. But leave it to the British to first coin the term airplane. Sort of. In his 1866 paper titled "On Aerial Locomotion," Francis Wenham called the unflexing wings of a beetle aeroplanes to differentiate them from the flexible wings of birds.

The Wrights actually used the term in a 1905 letter: "[A man called up asking if we] ... had succeeded in managing aeroplanes ...." But in both instances the men were referring to the wing; it took another five years for folks to begin using the noun to cover the whole flying machine. Although we Americans are always in a hurry and have shortened it to airplane, or even plane (which makes purist pilots scowl), the British have retained that extra syllable.

The colourful Brits added a lot of flavour, linguistically, to flying, so they're allowed. Cockpit came from the Royal Navy, which is where seaman Richard Henry Dana Jr., author of Two Years Before the Mast, spent his two years before the mast. Traditionally the cockpit was the area in the front of the ship where the junior officers and wounded were bunked. It comes from the Middle English cogge, a small boat. Forget about the pit where cocks fight. Everything always goes wonderfully between two pilots in an airplane's cockpit.

And, too, jolly old England provided the word elevator, from the Latin elevatus, meaning to move up. The English began by calling them elevating planes, but that caused many an aviator to grimace. And the nautically inclined Brits contributed rudder, which evolved from the Old English term rowan for oar.

But the French! Their pilote was the steersman of a ship; it originated as the Greek pedon for oar. Really, though, it's a lucky thing that Britannia ruled the waves and not aviation names. If they had, pilots might be called rowers. How gallant.

Then there's always fuselage. The French aeronautical journals called the covered longitudinal structure of Alberto Santos-Dumont's tail-first flying machine a fuselage because it so resembled the fusil, which in weaving is a spindle with thread wrapped around it. And aileron? That comes from French aviation pioneer Henri Farman himself. When he first arrived on these shores in 1910 he called the movable structures on the wing tips of his biplane ailerons ( little wings) in the hope that the Wrights wouldn't sue him for co-opting their patented wing warping system. They sued all the same.

The region that encloses an engine, the nacelle, also has French roots, but Latin origins: navis for ship. If anyone can tell me why the word nacelle originated from boat, I'm willing to listen.

On and on the French influence goes. During early World War I the racing pilot Roland Garros flew into combat in a monoplane with a machine gun firing through the propeller. He shot down four German airplanes — the most of any pilot — before blasting his propeller to splinters (he didn't have any interrupter gear to prevent that sort of thing).

Garros ended up in a German POW camp, and the competition was on to beat his record. From that day forward, anyone who topped the Garros number was known as an ace, the top card on the deck.

But the French did not always display brave independence. When someone finally mated airplane and radio, a pilot in dire straits could cry out m'aidez (help me). That sounds like Mayday, and heck if it didn't catch on in the English-speaking nations.

In 1870, one Alphonse Penaud invented and then mass-produced a rotary-wing toy that he named helicoptere. A cunning linguist, Penaud combined Greek for spiral ( helikos) with Greek for wing ( pteron). Why he chose to ignore the Latin planus we may never know. Hmmm .... Heliplane .... His French colleague Jules Verne only wrote about rotary-winged flight, but had Verne invented it we might call them streophores from the Greek streo for twist and phore for bear — as in support or lift. Of course twisted-wing flight just doesn't have much of a ring to it.

And what about the other terms that didn't make it? There was flyer and wing warping from the Wrights, and their term for controls: the levers. (It took two, one on each side of the pilot's seat, to fly a flyer — one to move the elevator and one to warp the wings. Each lever only moved forward and backward, by the way.)

Samuel Langley worked his little heart out to fly a flying aerodrome, yet the manned versions all splashed down in the Potomac River. Ultimately the name drowned too. George Cayley, an important figure in extremely early aviation (circa 1800), liked to call flight aerial navigation. I shouldn't be too hard on Sir George — after all he and his English counterparts used such simple terms as lift, thrust, and drag (or drift).

If anyone's mucked up aviation linguistics, it's we Americans. OK, so we came up with some neat phrases: the caterpillar club for anyone who has had to hit the silk and bail out of an airplane. (Get it? Caterpillars make silk.) And Mae West's ample bosom gave us the name for an inflatable life vest that pilots wore should they hit the silk over water. A pilot might auger in if his airplane spun into the ground.

But while we constantly invent newer and better technology to make flying easier and safer, we seem to not know how to name these things. TCAS, ADS-B, PCA (that's propulsion-controlled aircraft, which pilots at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center have worked on), VOR, NDB, FAR, GPS, RNAV, FBO, the old TCA, the new Class B airspace, and of course the ELT.

It's enough to give a student a migraine. I think we should continue coming up with the stuff and let the French name it.


Phil Scott is a freelance writer and pilot living in New York City.