What in the Word?! The inflated origins of ‘blimp’
In the last installment of What in the Word?!, we saw how the military tank began as a secret British codeword for the armored vehicle during World War I. This edition, let’s continue with the vehicles-of-the-Great-War theme and dig deep into blimp.
First employed for convoy and patrol in World War I, a blimp is a non-rigid airship that takes its distinctive shape from – and is, of course, held aloft by – the gas inside its envelope. A rigid airship like a zeppelin, in contrast, gets its structure from an internal framework, then covered by a skin. The difference between these dirigibles isn’t just important to their engineering: it also figures into the disputed etymology of the term blimp.
It’s often said of blimp that the US military had two designations for airships it developed during World War I: Type A-Rigid, with an internal framework like a zeppelin’s, and Type B-Limp, which didn’t, hence limp as an antonym for rigid. Type B-Limp, as it goes, was shortened to B-limp, then compressed to blimp. It’s clever, but historical evidence is lacking – or rather, is conspicuously absent for militaries, what with their penchant for paperwork. In a 1963 article in the American Aviation Historical Society Journal, Dr A. D. Topping stiffly, shall we say, dismisses this explanation:
There was no American ‘A-class’ of airships as such – all military aircraft, heavier or lighter-than-air, were designated with ‘A’ until the appearance of B-class airships in May 1917. There was an American B airship – but there seems to be no record of any official designation of non-rigids as ‘limp’. Further, according to the Oxford Dictionary, the first appearance of the word in print was in 1916, in England, a year before the first B-class airship.
The Oxford English Dictionary indeed finds blimp in Harold Rosher’s 1916 memoir In the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) where he notes he ‘visited the Blimps…this afternoon at Capel’. Capel, here, refers to RNAS Capel near Capel-le-Ferne in Kent, central to another etymology for blimp – one that traces the word back to a playful act of onomatopoeia. As the Lighter-Than-Air Society tells the tale in its website glossary:
The term most likely originated with Lieutenant (later Air Commodore) A. D. Cunningham of the Royal Naval Air Service, commanding officer of the British airship station at Capel in December 1915. During a weekly inspection, Lt. Cunningham visited an aircraft hangar to examine a ‘Submarine Scout’ pressure airship, His Majesty’s Airship SS-12. Cunningham broke the solemnity of the occasion by playfully flipping his thumb at the gasbag and was rewarded with an odd noise that echoed off the taut fabric. Cunningham imitated this sound by uttering: ‘Blimp!’ A young midshipman, who later became known as Air Marshal Sir Victor Goddard, repeated the tale of this humorous inspection to his fellow officers in the mess hall before lunch the same day.
And the term, as this theory has it, caught on from there.
Credit for blimp has also been given to aerospace engineer Horace Short – and one of the Short Brothers, the UK’s first aviation manufacturers – in an equally colorful anecdote. This account comes from C.H. Barnes’s Shorts Aircraft Since 1900, which chronicles the Short Brothers.
In February 1915 the need for anti-submarine patrol airships became urgent, and the Submarine Scout type was quickly improvised by hanging an obsolete B.E.2c fuselage from a spare Willows envelope; this was done by the R.N.A.S. at Kingsnorth, and on seeing the result for the first time, Horace Short already noted for his very apt and original vocabulary, named it ‘Blimp’, adding, ‘What else would you call it?’
Some words, apparently, suggest themselves. For his part, another wordsmith, the great J.R.R. Tolkien, suggested blimp was a blend of blister and lump, while others have floated a contraction of bloody limp, as some think the airship’s gas bag profanely inspired.
Maybe philologist Ernest Weekley best sums up this evasive etymology: ‘One of the weird coinages of the airmen’.
Blimp was in the lexical air not long before it was extended to other slang. In the 1920, the OED finds blimp as a pejorative term for ‘an excessively fat person’ and in 1926 for a ‘sexually promiscuous woman’. Blimp also lent its named to David Low’s Colonel Horatio Blimp, ‘a cartoon character pictured as a rotund and pompous retired British army officer voicing a hatred of new ideas’, who debuted in 1934, the OED explains.
And then there’s the Blimpie sandwich, which has been served up across the US since 1964. Why Blimpie? The founders wanted to distinguish themselves from that other sandwich sobriquet named for what blimp was originally designed to survey: the sub, short for submarine sandwich. According to company website, inspiration for the name came from… flipping through the dictionary.