Why Is It Called A Helicopter?

Not too long ago I happened to have my son (who is six) and his cousin (who is also six) in the back seat of my car as I was running some errands. Which, as you may have noticed, is how so many of these articles start. The car, it turns out, is a wonderful place to start getting questions. Why? Maybe watching the world roll by makes him ask questions. Or maybe it’s the science and history podcasts I listen to. Or maybe he’s just six, and questions get asked.

Anyway, back to the story. I’m driving, and they’re in the back seat chatting and playing and fighting as six year olds tend to do. Then my son says “Look! A helicopter!” They both ooh and aah and stare, watching it fly overhead. “Why is it called a helicopter?” my nephew asks.


I have no idea, of course. I think that, way back when I realized that English words were often made up of other words, I constructed an etymology in my head that derived it from the Greek word for ‘sun” – which I was pretty sure was “Helios”, because a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But I’ve never actually bothered to look. Also, in the interests of fair and full disclosure, it turns out that I’ve been spelling it wrong my whole life. I always thought it was “helecopter”, when it’s actually spelled “helicopter”.

So, let’s check it out. The Online Etymology Dictionary gives the following derevation for helicopter: “1861, from French hélicoptère “device for enabling airplanes to rise perpendicularly,” thus “flying machine propelled by screws.” From Greek helix (genitive helikos) “spiral” (see helix) + pteron “wing” (see ptero-).”

Clearly, nothing to do with the sun at all.

Why ‘spiral wing’?

Because of Leonardo da Vinci.


Leonardo wasn’t the first to come up with a device that could take off vertically. That credit goes to the creator of the bamboo dragonfly or Chinese top, a toy created around 400 BCE that consists of a propeller on a stick. You spin it the correct direction, and it leaps into the air. However, Leonardo is credited as being the first to try and design a device that could carry a human being (although he never constructed it, and since it would have been human-powered it would never have worked), and his design used a spiral-shaped wing – hence the name “aerial screw” and the origin of the word we now know as “helicopter”.



“Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus,” my son sings from the back seat, “right down Santa Claus Lane…”

It’s a week before Christmas, and we’re heading over to my in-laws to celebrate Christmas with them, and my six-year-old son is so excited he’s about to burst.  Oh, and we also just saw Star Wars: Rogue One the night before, so he’s also on a Stat Wars bender. Honestly, listening to him sing half the lyrics off-key had been a nice change of pace.

“Right down Santa Claus… dad?  Dad?  Daddy?”

“Yes?” I ask.

“What does Claus mean?”

Yeah.  You know where this is going.


This one actually turned out to be shockingly simple.  I checked a couple of sites – Behind the Name and BabyNamesPedia and AllBabyNames – and all of them agreed.  “Claus”, pronounced KLAWS, is simply a shortened form of the name Nicholas.  “Claus” has no specific meaning in and of itself, but the name “Nicholas” is a Greek name meaning “victor of the people”.  Interestingly enough, other shortened forms of Nicholas include Nick (“jolly old Saint Nick”) and Colin.

No, I have no idea how you get “Colin” out of “Nicholas”.  But imagine how things would have changed if calling him “Santa Colin” had caught on.  At bare minimum, the Beach Boys would have had to rewrite their Christmas song, because “The Little Saint Colin” would not have scanned.

Merry Christmas, everyone!




How Old Is Santa Claus?

Last weekend, we had several of my son’s friends over to help us decorate our Christmas tree and then bake and decorate and eat cookies. While the cookies were baking, I heard two of the kids talking. “How old is Santa?” one asked. “A hundred?”

“More like a hundred and fifty!” the other said, breathlessly, clearly stunned by the idea that something or someone could be that old.

Well. How could I ignore that question?

Saint Nicholas

Most of us, I believe, know that Santa Claus started out as Saint Nicholas. But, be honest here, how many of us know all that much about that particular Saint?

All right, all right. I don’t know that much about Nicholas.

Nicholas was born in the late third century CE, with bio. saying he was born “sometime circa 280” and Wikipedia giving his date of birth as March 15, 270. Both sources state he was born in the city of Patara (now Arsinoe), which is found on the southwest corner of modern-day Turkey. Catholic Online adds that he was at the Council of Nicaea, and that he was the Bishop of Myra (not too far from Patara, all things considered) at the time of his death – traditionally given as December 6, 343.

Traditionally, Nicholas was quite wealthy and he used that wealth to benefit the residents of his home town. Here’s how Catholic Online relates the story the Saint is most famous for:

An opportunity soon arose for St. Nicholas and his inheritance. A citizen of Patara had lost all his money, and needed to support his three daughters who could not find husbands because of their poverty; so the wretched man was going to give them over to prostitution. Nicholas became informed of this, and thus took a bag of gold and threw it into an open window of the man’s house in the night. Here was a dowry for the eldest girl and she was soon duly married. At intervals Nicholas did the same for the second and the third; at the last time the father was on the watch, recognized his benefactor and overwhelmed Nicholas with his gratitude. It would appear that the three purses represented in pictures, came to be mistaken for the heads of three children and so they gave rise to the absurd story of the children, resuscitated by the saint, who had been killed by an innkeeper and pickled in a brine-tub.

Interestingly enough, we know what he probably looked like. Nicholas’ remains are buried in the crypt in the Basilica de San Nicola, and some detailed measurements and x-rays of his skull were made in the 1950s. Based on thise measurements, and some forensic anthropology and coloration based on people from the region, this is what he would have looked like:


Note that broken nose. Tradition holds that Nicholas was caught up in the Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians, which makes sense – he was a Bishop at the time, after all. He’s also believed to have done time for assault, having slapped Arius in the face at the Council of Nicaea. He also had the temple of Artemis in Myra destroyed, and intervened in several civil cases to get the decisions of bribed judges overturned. As a Saint, Wikipedia lists him as the patron of children, coopers, sailors, fishermen, merchants, broadcasters, the falsely accused, repentant thieves, brewers, pharmacists, archers, pawnbrokers, Aberdeen, Galway, Russia, Greece, the Hellenic Navy, Liverpool, Bari, Siggiewi, Moscow, Amsterdam, Lorraine, and the Duchy of Lorraine.


Yeah. Among other things. The Wikipedia list is fairly short, really. The St. Nicholas Center lists him as the patron of 113 different people and professions. My favorites include lovers, pirates, robbers and thieves, and women who want to get married. I don’t have any idea how accurate any of this is, though, as I can’t find an official listing of Saint Nicholas’ responsibilities.

So Santa’s a little more than 100 – 150, isn’t he?

Just a little. Taking Wikipedia’s stated birth date (March 15, 270), he’s a sprightly 1,746 years old.

A Little More On The Purple Eye

The day I posted “Do I Have A Purple Eye?“, a friend of mine made the following comment on Facebook:

Aha! You, sir, are incorrect. You forgot cerebral contusions which don’t leak into skin tissues but into surrounding brain tissue.

Well, this got my attention (and made my skin crawl). More importantly, it got me looking deeper into this whole ‘contusion’ thing. Buckle in, folks: this will be uncomfortable.

Not all hematomas are created equal

To begin with we’ll need to revisit some definitions, because I wasn’t entirely correct. Broadly speaking all bruises are hematomas, but not all hematomas are bruises. This is because a hematoma is just (“just”) a collection of blood outside the blood vessels, which can be caused by trauma, illness, or just the blood vessel tearing from weakness. Contusions are a specific subset of hematoma caused by blunt trauma.


According to Wikipedia, hematomas come in several flavors. These include:

  • Subdermal, which is a hematoma beneath the skin.
  • Skull/brain, which are hematomas where blood pools either within the brain itself or in the cerebrospinal fluid that cushions your brain within your skull. Subdermal hematomas of the scalp also get classified as skull/brain hematomas.
  • Breast, which is a hematoma within the breast tissue – meaning that women are much more prone to these than men.
  • Myocardial, which is a hematoma in your heart muscles.
  • Pulmonary, which is a hematoma in your lung tissue.
  • Subconjunctival, which is a hematoma of the conjunctiva – the tissue that lines the inside of your eyelid and covers the whites of your eyes.
  • Perichondral, which is a hematoma of the ear. Specifically, it is blood pooling in such a way that the ear cartilige seperates from the perichondrium (the connective tissue that surrounds the cartilige of developing bone). This is where so-called “cauliflower ear[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cauliflower_ear]” comes from.
  • Perianal, which is a hematoma of the anus. This is also known as a hemorrhoid.
  • Subungual, which is a hematoma beneath a fingernail or toenail, and is sometimes known by names such as “runner’s toe” or “skier’s toe”.

Hematomas are also classified by degree. A petechiae is less than 3 mm in diameter, a purpura (which I mistakenly thought was a type of hematoma, instead of a degree) is between 3 mm and 1 cm in diameter, and an ecchymosis is larger than 1 cm in diameter. So a petechiae subdermal hematoma is a tiny thing on your skin, while a perianal ecchymosis is no diagnosis you ever want to have.

Now, a contusion is just (just?) a hematoma caused by our old friend blunt force trauma. So, really, any type of hematoma can be a contusion. Myocardial contusion? Sure. Perianal contusion? Yep. Perichondral ecchymosic contusion? Why not.

So there you have it. Anything that has blood vessels in or near it can suffer a hematoma. Skin, heart, lungs, eyes, whatever.  And now I’m going to pack myself in cotton for a while.  Just until the skin crawling and the paranoia wears off.

Do I Have A Purple Eye?

My son has a wooden toy axe that he bought with his allowance money when we went to the Ohio Renaissance Festival. This will be an important fact, momentarily.

Last week, we were roughhousing in his room. That ridiculous sort of “wrestling” you do with your kids, that’s mostly the kid jumping on you and climbing all over you and laughing hysterically. Both of us were having a good time, even though I had to remind him that he shouldn’t actually hit me with the axe. He tells me he’s sorry, then jumps on my back and slides around and goes face-first onto the floor. I’m not concerned, because he does this about once a minute when we’re roughhousing.

Then he shouts “ouch!”

Being a dad who tries hard to be a good dad, I immediately check to see what’s going on. He has, it seems, landed face first not on the floor but on the axe handle. When he comes up, he’s rubbing his eye. Then he moves his hand. “Do I have a purple eye?” he asks.

I look. “No. You’re all right.”

He nods, rubs his eye one last time, and then tackles me.

What is a bruise?

Clearly, he didn’t get significantly hurt. The pain went away quickly, and no bruising developed. But that got me thinking. I’ve had bruises before, but I’ve never really been sure what they are. I know they’re caused by impacts, and I’m pretty sure they involve bleeding beneath the skin, but that hits the limits of my knowledge. So even though he didn’t ask a direct question along the lines of “what’s a bruise?”, I decided to look into the question.

Advanced Tissue defines a bruise as “a condition in which small blood vessels under the skin rupture, causing blood to leak into the underlying skin tissue.” Which makes me feel good, finding out that my received wisdom (probably from my parents, but I couldn’t say for sure) is correct. But then the definition goes on to note that “there are three common types of bruises that can occur based on the severity of an injury: contusions, hematomas, and purpura.”

Now I’m intrigued. I’ve heard the word ‘contusion’ before, and just assumed it was a synonym for a ‘bruise’. I’ve also heard the word ‘hematoma’, and recognize just enough Latin to know that it must involve blood, but I don’t know what one is. And ‘purpura’? Well, let’s just say my first guess would have been “that’s the intermediate lifecycle state of a butterfly, right?”. And then I’d have acknowledged that I’m entirely wrong.

So, a contusion is the most common type of bruise, caused by “blunt force trauma” – that is, hitting yourself. If the impact is strong enough to damage blood vessels, a contusion forms. The skin under the impact site will turn colors; red at first, then black, blue or purple, then possibly green and yellow as the blood breaks down and is reabsorbed by the body.


A hematoma is ” a type of bruising where a massive collection of blood has pooled at the injury site”, and is often accompanied by greater pain and swelling. They can be caused by the ever-popular ‘blunt force trauma’, by spontaneous rupturing of blood vessels (and I’m just a little on edge knowing that “spontaneous rupturing of blood vessels” is a thing), or by surgical procedures. They can be dangerous if they occur in or near vital organs.

Purpura are smallish bruises, generally resembling purple-colored patches or spots – that occur when small blood vessels rupture. Most frequently, these aren’t caused by our good friend blunt force trauma; they are typically the result of certain diseases, aging (which makes the blood vessels more fragile), and some drugs that reduce platelet count. Why that latter? Because platelets are instrumental in the clotting process, which helps seal damaged vessels. If they’re slow to seal a small rupture in a small vessel, for example because the platelet count is low, a purpura forms.

How do you treat a bruise?

Generally, bruising is initially treated with the “RICE method”. RICE, in this context, is an acronym that stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. For the first 24 to 48 hours you should take it easy on the injured area, put ice and pressure on it (to reduce swelling), and keep it elevated if at all possible (which reduces the blood flow, which also reduces swelling). After that initial 24 to 48 hour period, light to moderate exercise of the muscles and joints near the bruise will help with healing. And be certain to consult with your doctor if it seems especially severe or painful, or if it doesn’t seem to be healing. I’m a stock broker, not a doctor. Don’t depend on me for your health care, please.

Oh, and there’s this statement from Advanced Tissue: “Unlike contusions and hematomas, purpura treatment will vary on a case-by-case basis as determined by a medical professional by evaluating the underlying cause of the purpura.”

Wait… bone bruise?

Yes, I know that I didn’t actually say anything about the hideous-sounding ‘bone bruise’. But it came up in the “Treating a Wound or Bruise” information I was reviewing. The very phrase makes me cringe and makes my skin crawl, so I now have a powerful need to find out what it is in hopes of reducing that reaction. I’m weird that way – as a child, I had to watch my doctor give me shots and draw blood in order to reduce my fear of getting stuck with a needle, too.

Physopedia defines a bone bruise as:

Bone bruise is one of the four types of fractures that occur in the human body, the others are: stress fractures, osteochondral fractures and bone fractures.

Bone bruise is a term that contains 3 different kinds of bone injuries: sub-periosteal hematoma, inter-osseous bruising and sub-chondral lesion.

A bone bruise can be described as a stage before the fracture.

When we speak of a real bone fracture it means that all the bone trabeculae of that specific place are fractured. In case of a bone bruise only a few of the trabeculae are broken.

None of that is reducing my urge to cringe. Let’s dig deeper.

The periosteum is the layer of connective tissue that covers a bone. If you’ve ever gnawed on a chicken leg or pork chop bone, and found yourself stripping off a thin transparent layer from the bone, that’s the periosteum. (Please tell me I’m not the only one who’s ever done that…) It’s actually two layers. The outer layer is tough collagen and fibroblasts (which produce more collagen), and the inner layer is stem cells and osteoblasts (which help repare the hard part of the bone if its damaged). So, that first type of bone bruise – the sub-periosteal hematoma – is caused by rupturing the blood vessels immediately beneath the periosteum – hence the name. This type of bone bruise is the direct result of our old friend blunt force trauma.

Inter-osseous bruising, the second form of bone bruise, is damage to the blood vessels that penetrate the bone itself. why do we have blood vessels penetrating our bones, you ask? Because our bones contain marrow, a spongy cellular factory for new blood cells. Which makes marrow extremely important, as you may guess, and which also means that we need a way to move them out. Well, “repetitive high compressive force on the bone (extreme pressure on regular base)” can rupture those vessels, causing blood to pool inside the bone itself. Yes, my skin is crawling again.

Sub-chondral lesions are bone bruises that occur beneath the cartilage layer of a joint – the padding that protects bone where it meets other bone. “The main trigger is an extreme compressive force that literally crushes the cells, that results in a separation of the cartilage (or ligament) and the underlying bone, plus bleeding when the energy of the impact extends into the bone. The other trigger is a shearing force, it sustains from a rotational mechanism such as twisting and translational forces. These will also cause that the cartilage tissue will be stripped away and exposing the underlying bone. It results in the same injury as a compressive force injury but this is another source of the injury.”

Yeah. Not better.

Bone bruises don’t show up on x-rays unless there is an associated fracture, so diagnosis can be difficult. Treatment generally involves rest and avoiding repetitive and strong loads on the bruised bone, and plenty of rest. You should really see your doctor, if you think you have one of these.