Winged words: the language of aviation
Ever since we first gazed up to the skies and envied the glorious freedom of birds, many of us have yearned to join them (appropriately, aviation derives from avis, which means ‘bird’ in Latin). Some of mankind’s earliest myths (including that of the Greek craftsman Daedalus and his son Icarus) are testament to our deep-rooted desire to ‘slip the surly bonds of Earth’ (to paraphrase the US aviator and poet John Gillespie Magee Jr).
In the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci designed several flying machines, including gliders and ornithopters (ornis being the Greek word for ‘bird’). Such visions were put into practice when a few intrepid pioneers took to the air in hot-air balloons and gliders during the 18th and 19th centuries, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that going ‘up, up, and away’ became a possibility for the majority of mankind, thanks to Orville and Wilbur Wright, who in 1903 achieved the first controlled flight in a heavier-than-air powered aircraft.
What does all this have to do with aviation-related language, you may wonder? The relatively late development of aircraft necessarily means that terms derived from the world of human flight are fewer in number than those which originate in our nautical tradition (which I covered in an earlier blog post). Additionally, such words have also often tended to be highly technical, jargon, or slang, and thus restricted to personnel involved in military or commercial flying. Popular films such as The Dam Busters or Top Gun have familiarized us with snippets of air-force slang (for instance wizard prang and bandits at 3 o’clock), but most of this hasn’t filtered through into everyday language, unless you’re consciously aiming for a humorous effect.
Nonetheless, while you may not realize that you’re slipping the earth’s surly bonds as you use them, here’s a selection of familiar and colourful words and phrases with their roots in aviation.
Though first found in the nautical world (it can refer to the forward edge of a ship’s propeller blade), the term leading edge crossed over into aeronautics in the early 20th century (so I’m sneaking it in here!), when it came to mean the foremost edge of an aerofoil, especially a wing or a propeller blade.
Nowadays, most people are likely to encounter the expression in a figurative sense, as it’s frequently used to talk about the forefront or vanguard of technological or other developments, both as a noun and as a modifier: our state is at the leading edge of a very promising industry; a retailer with leading-edge products.
roll-out (also rollout)
As a noun (the adjective doesn’t concern us here), roll-out has three main senses, two of which have links to human flight. The original meaning, first recorded in 1947 according to current Oxford English Dictionary (OED) research, and still in use in aviation circles, is ‘the official first showing of a new aircraft or spacecraft to the public’. This derives from the fact that, at these official events, the gleaming new aircraft or spacecraft would be rolled or wheeled out on to the flight line with great ceremony.
From this meaning came the more general one that most people are familiar with today, namely ‘the official launch of a new product or service’: manufacturers are readying their low-carb versions of ice cream for immediate rollout. The earliest use of this sense was found in a marketing journal in 1969 (I imagine it being coined by some hard-pressed writer seeking a fresh and exciting synonym for ‘launch’…). However, it’s stood the test of time and has now gained dominance over the other meanings.
Finally, the other, more specialized, aviation sense refers to ‘the stage of an aircraft’s landing during which it travels along the runway while losing speed’: an aircraft is controlled throughout all phases of a landing including touchdown and rollout to taxi. This is the part when some over-eager passengers start unbuckling their seat belts until sternly admonished not to do so by cabin crew.
to push the envelope (or to push the edge of the envelope)
A phrase that now seems inescapable in management-speak and the media, to push the envelope means to come near to, or extend, the boundaries of what’s possible: these witty stories consistently push the envelope of TV comedy.
Ok, pushing a paper letter-container (hardly a challenging activity) – is this really related to flying an aircraft? In a sense, yes: the OED tells us that, from the 1940s and in aviation parlance, an envelope (or a flight envelope) refers to ‘the set of limiting combinations of speed and altitude, or speed and range…possible for a particular…aircraft or aero-engine’.
To push this metaphorical envelope is to test or go beyond such limits, a necessary practice in aeronautical research. The OED’s earliest recorded use of to push the envelope dates from an aviation journal of 1978, but it was popularized by Tom Wolfe’s 1979 novel about test pilots, The Right Stuff, and the 1983 movie of the same name.
a flat spin
Today, most people know the informal meaning of this phrase, namely ‘an agitated or panicky state’ (Why go into a flat spin if your cats get fleas?). This is a more serious situation for a pilot, and may well lead to state of panic: a flat spin is one in which an aircraft descends in tight circles while remaining almost horizontal. The OED’s first recorded use of this term dates from 1917.
to go for a burton
There are several explanations for the origin of this informal British phrase (here’s a useful rundown, from World Wide Words). None of them have been proved to be the definitive etymology, though it’s agreed that the phrase can be traced back to the RAF slang of World War II. It means ‘to be killed’ when referring to an aviator (now a dated usage), or ‘to be ruined or destroyed’ when referring about a person or thing: he went for a burton over France last year; my laptop’s gone for a burton.
But what exactly is a burton, and why did going for one gain these meanings? Let’s look at the two main theories, both of which demonstrate the black humour often needed to deal with the fact that WW2 aviators were highly likely to be killed in action:
- The English town of Burton upon Trent is known for its brewing industry, and a Burton came to refer to a type of ale. When an aviator crashed into the sea (informally known as the drink), the idea was that the person was ‘absent’ (in reality, dead) because they had gone for a pint of beer.
- There was a famous firm of tailors called Montague Burton; if an airman ‘went for a burton’, he’d died and gone to be fitted for a ‘wooden suit’ or ‘wooden overcoat’ (that is, a coffin).
to fly by the seat of your pants
A colourful phrase, meaning that someone is using their instinct and experience to do something as they go along, rather than planning a course of action logically or using prior specialized knowledge: I’m in charge of our website but am flying by the seat of my pants, learning as I go.
This expression, first recorded in 1938, comes from the days of early aircraft, which were often very basic, with little instrumentation. A pilot, sitting in the cockpit, could literally feel the least change in engine note, vibration, and movement of the aircraft and could interpret this input to help control the plane to the best of his or her ability.
Have you enjoyed winging your way through these words? You may now unfasten your seat belts and I hope that you have a safe onward journey to your final destination (please excuse the cabin-crew-speak, but I hankered to be a trolley dolly when I was a little girl!).