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!




Why Do We Call Dads “Dad”?

Sometimes, my son really manages to stump me.

A few weeks ago we’re walking home from preschool, and he’s chattering on and telling me about his day.  Then, out of nowhere, he asks me “why do we call dads ‘dad’?”

I’d… never thought about that.  Ever.  “I don’t know,” I admit.  Then, I take a tack that I’m trying recently.  “How do you think we can find out?”

“You can look it up!” he informs me happily, which then leads to a discussion about dictionaries and my realization that my son will probably never actually use a physical dictionary in his life.


My first stop, when dealing with word origins, is the Online Etymology Dictionary, which provides this information:

recorded from c. 1500, but probably much older, from child’s speech, nearly universal and probably prehistoric (compare Welsh tad, Irish daid, Czech, Latin, Greek tata, Lithuanian tete, Sanskrit tatah, all of the same meaning).

My standard pattern after this is to perform internet searches, but there was a significant lack of useful hits from the query “word origin of dad” or “etymology of dad”.  Oh, I got any number of hits, but all of them ended up recycling the Online Etymology Dictionary above or refers to a single article from Mental Floss.  This article speculates that the word actually derives from baby talk, since:

Both the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders and the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, however, say that sounds like ta, da, na, and la are easy for babies to make once some upper teeth come.

Warning:  Speculation Ahead!

So, da and ma and ta and the like are easy sounds to make.  And, if you’ve ever spent any time around young babies, you know they like repeating sounds (“babababababa”).  And parents are certainly prone to attaching meaning to those repeating sounds (“he said ‘dede’!  That means he wants a drink!”).  So, it’s certainly reasonable that way back at the dawn of human language, some parents decided that the baby saying ‘dada’ or ‘tata’ was calling for his father – and since we’re pattern-seeking creatures, once we decided that ‘dada’ or ‘tata’ meant ‘father’ we’d be prone to ignore the times the same sound was applied to the bug the child was eating.  Then, since the father is responding to that sound, the baby (who is soaking up language at a fearsome pace) gets reinforcement on calling the father ‘dada’.  Three hundred thousand years and more later, some variation of the sound ‘dada’ is ingrained in human language everywhere.

Can I prove this?  No.  But it seems to fit the evidence, and so I’m willing to put it forward as a hypothesis until more facts come to light.

What about “mom”?

My son didn’t ask about “mom”, but it seems fair and reasonable to toss this word in as well.  So, turning back to the Online Etymology Dictionary, we learn:

1570s, representing the native form of the reduplication of *ma- that is nearly universal among the Indo-European languages (Greek mamme “mother, grandmother,” Latin mamma, Persian mama, Russian and Lithuanian mama “mother,” German Muhme “mother’s sister,” French maman, Welsh mam “mother”). Probably a natural sound in baby-talk, perhaps imitative of sound made while sucking.

Its late appearance in English is curious, but Middle English had mome (mid-13c.) “an aunt; an old woman,” also an affectionate term of address for an older woman. In educated usage, the stress is always on the last syllable. In terms of recorded usage of related words in English, mama is from 1707, mum is from 1823, mummy in this sense from 1839, mommy 1844, momma 1852, and mom 1867.

In other words, it seems that my “dada” hypothesis can be equally applied to “mama”, with that sound being associated with the mother because it is considered a “sucking” sound.

Girls Can’t Be Kings!

A while back, a cartoon called “Princess King” was hugely popular on Facebook for several days before getting lost. If you don’t recall it, or have never heard of it, here it is:


My wife and I found this cartoon amusing, as we have at least one niece that we could see doing this. While we were laughing, my son wanted to know what was so funny. Shrugging, we showed him the cartoon and read him the dialogue. He thought about that for a moment and then said “Girls can’t be kings!”

“Girls can be anything they want,” my wife told him. “Just like boys.”

“No,” my son insisted. “They can’t!”

Sigh. Gender politics at the age of five. Although, being honest, most of this is probably just him being contrary. He’d insist the sky was green and up was down, some days. If he was in the right mood and we were contradicting him.

What is a King? A Queen?

Dictionary.com has 13 different definitions for the word king, but here’s the only one relevant to this topic: “a male sovereign or monarch; a man who holds by life tenure, and usually by hereditary right, the chief authority over a country and people”. Queen, by contrast, has “only” eleven different definitions. Two of them are relevant to this discussion:

  1. a female sovereign or monarch.
  2. the wife or consort of a king.

So, it would appear that – by definition – my son was right. A woman who “holds by life tenure, and usually by hereditary right, the chief authority over a country and people” is a Queen Regnant, while “the wife or consort of a king” is a Queen Consort. So, there we are. Right?

Well… no.

Were there any female Kings?

See, dictionary definitions are fine and all, but they rarely hold the force of law. Kings, however, frequently hold the force of law. And there have been a number of historical women who – although by the d would be “Queens Regent” – have borne the title “King”. And I suspect that most of them would have executed you for contradicting them.

Here are a few of them.

  • Sobekneferu (or Merytre Satsekhem-nebettawy Djedetkha Sobekkare Sobeknefru, if you want the full regnal name):  The last ruler of the Egyptian Twelfth Dynasty, and the first woman that archaeologists can conclusively prove reigned as Pharaoh.  And yes, I’m aware that technically her title was “Pharaoh” and not “King”, but that is unworthy semantic hairsplitting.
  • Jadwiga:  Crowned King of Poland on October 16, 1384, and reigned as such until her death in 1399.  She shared the title with her husband Władysław-Jogaila beginning on March 4, 1386 (14 days after they married), but she was never retitled Queen of Poland.
  • Christina of Sweden:  The only surviving  legitimate heir of King Gustave II Adolph of Sweden.  She was crowned King in 1633 (at the age of 6), and educated and trained in the exact same fashion she would have received had she been born “Christopher” of Sweden.  She is commonly referred to as Queen Christina, but the title conferred upon her by the Riksdag at her coronation was “King”.
  • King Peggy (more formally King Amuah-Afenyi VI):  A naturalized citizen of the United States, Peggielene Bartels became King of Tantum in Ghana after the death of her uncle in 2008.  You can visit her web site here.

The Princess King Herself

Finally, it seems only fair to acknowledge the woman who inspired this entire article.  The “Princess King” comic is the work of a woman named Pascalle Lepas, who also writes and draws a webcomic called Wilde Life.  If you liked that comic, let her know – because someone decided to publish that comic without attribution, and she got next to none of the benefits of seeing her hard work go viral.

Why Are They Called “Numbers”?

I live in a condominium, one of those ones that look like an apartment building. It’s not a bad building, really, but it has a couple of interesting quirks. Like the locked storage closet in a hallway by the stairs. But we’ve adapted, and we now use it to store things that we don’t want to have to walk out to the garage for, but we also don’t want to keep in the house. Like our Christmas decorations, and my tools.

Well, my son and I needed to fetch those tools – he’s got a white board now, and I promised him we’d hang it up on his wall. As I’m opening up the closet, he’s eagerly reading the brass numbers on each of the closet doors. “One,” he says. “Two. That’s our number! Three. Four. Why are they numbers?”

“What?” I ask, pulling my head out of the closet.

“Why are they numbers?”

I shrug. “Because we need to show which condo owns which closet, and…”

“No, daddy,” he corrects me. “Why are they called numbers?”

Oh, good. An etymology question. But fortunately, I’ve got the Online Etymology Dictionary to turn to for that. And they provide derivations for “number” as both a noun and a verb. As a verb, “number” comes from the Old French word nombrer, meaning “to count, reckon”. The “to assign a number to” meaning appears to date to the late 14th century CE, while “to ascertain the number of” appears to date to the early 15th century CE.

The noun form of “number” comes from the Old French nombre, which I strongly suspect is related to the Old French nombrer discussed above – I don’t speak French, though, so I really can’t prove it. Nombre comes from the Latin word numerus (meaning “a number, quantity”), which derives from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root word *nem- (meaning, “to divide, distribute, allot).

Because I was on the subject, I decided to look into the origin of the words we use for the numbers themselves. It turns out that, at least for the first ten numbers, English number names appear to derive directly from PIE words, through Old Germanic and into English.

  • One derives from the Old English an, which derives from the Proto-Germanic *ainaz, which derives from the PIE *oi-no- (meaning “one, unique”).
  • Two derives from the Old English twa (which is the feminine and neuter form of the Old English twegen which also meant “two”), which derives from the Proto-Germanic *twa, which derives from the PIE *duwo.
  • Three derives from the Old English þreo (the feminine and neuter form; the masculine was þri or þrie), which derives from the Proto-Germanic *thrijiz, which derives from the PIE *trei.
  • Four derives from the Old English feower, which derives from the Proto-Germanic *fedwor-, which derives from the PIE *kwetwer-. The dictionary also notes that “the phonetic evolution of the Germanic forms has not been fully explained”.
  • Five derives from the Old English fif, which derives from the Proto-Germanic *fimfe, which derives from the PIE *penkwe-.
  • Six derives from the Old English siex (or six, or sex), which derives from the Proto-Germanic *sekhs, which derives from the PIE *s(w)eks.
  • Seven derives from the Old English seofon, which derives from the Proto-Germanic *sebun, which derives from the PIE *septm.
  • Eight derives from the Old English eahta (or æhta), which derives from the Proto-Germanic *akhto, which derives from the PIE *okto(u).
  • Nine derives from the Old English nigen, which derives from the Proto-Germanic *niwun, which derives from the PIE newn.
  • Ten derives from the Old English ten (or tien), which derives from the Proto-Germanic *tehun, which derives from the PIE *dekm.

So, why are numbers called numbers? Because the early Proto-Indo-European speakers decided to use the word *nem- when they were dividing things up.

What is “the Unknown”?

Every once in a while, these questions get abstract.

I stayed home from work yesterday, because my son had an ear infection and the doctor told us to keep him home from daycare for the first day. (That, by the way, is always a fun dilemma for two working parents.) He wasn’t feeling bad, so keeping him corralled was an interesting exercise. So we watched The Year Without A Santa Claus and Nestor the Long-Eared Donkey. And by then, much as I love the holidays, I was ready for a change. So I talked him into watching Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Chunks of it went right over his head, but he loved it.

There’s one sequence, though, that inspired some lovely discussion. Melanthius, a Greek mystic (played by Patrick Troughton, who’s about as Greek as I am) is discussing the reaction of the “troglodyte” to a sketch of the gate they’re looking for. He says “Like all primitives, he’s afraid of the unknown”. Unlike us modern, civilized people, who are utterly comfortable with the unknown…


“What’s the unknown?” my son asks. And it’s a good question, because I don’t think that’s a word he’s heard before. The problem I run into, as I try to explain it to him, is that he’s convinced that “the unknown” is a thing in the movie. I tell him “it’s something you don’t know”, and he says “is the door the Unknown?”

“No, son. The unknown is something you don’t know.”

“Maybe the unknown is a ghost!” he says.

“Well,” I guardedly allow, “it could be…”

“Or a dragon!” he continues. “Or a dragon that shoots ghosts!”

After a while, I think I got him to understand that “the unknown” isn’t a thing. But five-year-olds don’t do so well with abstract concepts. So, let’s go ahead and talk about it here.

What is the unknown? And why do we fear it?

To start with, Merriam-Webster defines the word as follows:

adjective un·known \-ˈnōn\

1: one that is not known or not well-known; especially : a person who is little known (as to the public)
2: something that requires discovery, identification, or clarification: as
a : a symbol (as x, y, or z) in a mathematical equation representing an unknown quantity
b : a specimen (as of bacteria or mixed chemicals) required to be identified as an exercise in appropriate laboratory techniques

The etymology of the word comes from the prefix un- and the word known. Un- is either a prefix of negation, deriving from the coming to us from the Proto-Germanic *un-, or a prefix of reversal, deprivation, or removal coming from the Proto-Germanic *andi-. Know derives from the Old English cnawan “to know, perceive, acknowledge, declare”, which derives from the Proto-Germanic *knew-.

(“Unknown” clearly uses the “prefix of negation” form of un-. But it’s an interesting mental exercise to think of what it would mean if you interpreted un- as the “prefix of reversal, deprivation, or removal” instead. “Unknown” would then mean something that was forgotten, possibly deliberately.)

So the unknown is simply something representing an unknown quantity, or something that requires discovery and/or identification. That doesn’t seem like something frightening, put like that. But… we do fear the unknown. Why?

The National Institute of Mental Health defines fear as “a feeling of disquiet that begins rapidly in the presence of danger and dissipates quickly once the threat is removed. It is generally adaptive.” Adaptive, of course, is referring to an “adaptive trait”, which is something that is evolved and maintained by natural selection. So fear is an evolved response, triggered by the “fight or flight response” (properly known as General Adaptation Syndrome).

From here on out, you’ll be reading my opinion.

Fear is an adaptive survival response – we’ve evolved from a long line of critters that had a healthy fear reaction. After all, the Juramaia sinensis() that didn’t have enough sense to be afraid of predators didn’t breed. And, from a “I don’t want to get eaten” perspective, being afraid of something you can’t see and/or don’t understand makes sense. That new animal might be a predator. That dark hole might be really deep. That strange, moving thing might try to kill you.

Humans have imaginations. We can visualize things that aren’t there. (Interestingly, though, it turns out that other animals – our close cousins the Chimpanzees and the Great Apes, but apparently also rats – can as well, based on observational and brain activity studies. So imagination isn’t a uniquely human trait.) Combine that ability with an instinctive fear reaction, and you get the ability to be afraid of things that are unknown. So while we should respect and listen to that fear as a way of staying alive, we shouldn’t let ourselves be ruled by that fear. After all, once we quantify and understand that unknown, it may very well not be dangerous.

Unless it turns out to be a dragon that fires ghosts. I’m all in on fearing that.

Thor’s Hammer

When my son was six months old, I bought him a Nerf Thor’s Hammer. Why? Because I love the character of Thor, both in the comics and in Norse myth. I’m a huge nerd. My wife thought I was crazy. Not because she isn’t a huge nerd (she doesn’t like comics as much as I do, but she still likes them), but because he was six months old. And we did have to take it away from him for a while, right after he learned to walk. Because the hammer became his “doggie wacker”.

Skip forward about four and a half years, now. I’m getting ready to do my exercises for the night. My son’s excited about this, because he enjoys “helping” me with my exercises – something that, in his mind, means “doing them with daddy, or running in circles around daddy while he does them, or playing in the same room”. But he’s swinging his hammer around, and he declares: “I’m going to exercise with this!”

I chuckle. “You’re going to exercise with Mjollnir?”

“No,” he corrects me. “I’m going to exercise with Thor’s hammer!”

I laugh at that. “Thor’s hammer is named Mjollnir.”

He stops and looks at me. “Why?”

To try and answer that, I started by going to the closest things to primary sources I could think of: the Elder (Poetic) Edda and the Younger (Prose) Edda. Sadly, although they mention Mjollnir in several places, they don’t tell the meaning of the name. The closest they get is the Skaldskaparmal () in the Prose Edda, which describes the creation of the hammer and describes it’s properties:

Then he gave the hammer to Thor, and said that Thor might smite as hard as he desired, whatsoever might be before him, and the hammer would not fail; and if he threw it at anything, it would never miss, and never fly so far as not to return to his hand; and if be desired, he might keep it in his sark, it was so small; but indeed it was a flaw in the hammer that the fore-haft was somewhat short.

Since that didn’t help, I started searching. The Online Etymology Dictionary provided this:

Odin’s eldest son, strongest of the gods though not the wisest, c.1020, from Old Norse Þorr, literally “thunder,” from *þunroz, related to Old English þunor (see ‘thunder’ (n.)). His weapon was the hammer mjölnir (“crusher”).”

“Crusher”. That’s promising, but it doesn’t really say where the name came from. But there’s this reference from Lightning: Nature and Culture, written by Doctor Derek M. Elsom, Emeritus Professor at Oxford Brookes University:

In Norse mythology Thor’s hammer is known as Mjolnir (or Mjollnir), a distinctively shaped weapon more akin to an axe than a hammer. The etymology of ‘Mjolnir’ is uncertain, but it is probably related to Old Norse mala (meaning grind), or molva (meaning crush), with possible cognates in the Russian molnija or Welsh mellt (both refer to lightning). Lightning is associated with the hammer, although the mythical narratives focus on the striking blow it delivers and the powers it possesses rather than the fire or light of lightning.

So, that seems to verify the meaning as “grinder” or “crusher” as well as anything can, although Norse Mythology for Smart People speculates it could “also be related to the Icelandic words mjöll, ‘new snow,’ and mjalli, ‘white,’ the color of lightning and a potential symbol of purity.” Which is interesting, in light of this further quote from Dr. Elsom’s book:

For many Scandinavians the protective powers of Mjolnir were considered so special that Thor’s axe became a symbol used in the blessing of objects (such as ships), births, marriages, deaths and the binding of oaths. Even after Christianity replaced the old gods, it was customary in some parts of Scandinavia for the groom to carry an axe at his wedding ceremony and in Germany it was auspicious for the bride if a thunderstorm occurred during the ceremony.

Interestingly, Wikipedia states that the name Mjolnir is “derived from a Proto-Germanic form *meldunjaz, from the Germanic root of *malanan ‘to grind’ (*melwan, Old Icelandic meldr, mjǫll, mjǫl ‘meal, flour’), yielding an interpretation of ‘the grinder; crusher’.” That tallies well with the fact that “Thor ruled over all the features of the atmosphere, not just thunder, lightning and storms, but the life-giving rains and the winds that propelled ships across the seas” (Dr. Elsom, again).

So here’s my totally-not-a-linguist-or-expert-in-Norse-religion take on it:  Mjolnir was probably a thunderstone, one of the flint arrowheads and axes that were believed to have fallen from the skies. Because Thor was associated with life-giving rains as well as storms, the stones became associated with grindstones as well. So, next time you eat bread, imagine lightning striking the grain to make flour. It’ll make your peanut butter sandwich far more epic.

(I really don’t have the time to get into [i]that[/i] here, but if you’re curious a good place to start is The Thunderweapon in Religion and Folklore: A Study in Comparative Archaeology. It’s a dated but fascinating read.)