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”.