Speaking our language

Look, I rarely fly during the wintertime. VFR, warm blooded, no way to get to Lincoln Airport except on the motorcycle, that’s me. Instead, I—nerd alert—build model airplanes and—double-nerd alert—read and reread The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright (Volumes One and Two), The Daily Telegraph Second Book of Obituaries: Heroes and Adventurers, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, by Eric Partridge and just about anything on World War II flying. Don’t hate me—I led a wasted childhood.

Wright Flyer
The Wrights invented a "flying machine," or a "flyer," but they never called it an airplane.

Anyway, I’ve learned a lot about aviation linguistics, an area of knowledge ignored by most. And while the Wrights were cunning inventors, that still didn’t make them cunning linguists. For instance, their major invention, the airplane, Wilbur always referred to as their flying machine or flyer. (Which may be why the proper spelling for the person at the controls of a flyer is a flier.) In a 1904 letter to one-time mentor Octave Chanute, Wilbur wrote that “after about 200 ft. [Orville] allowed the machine to turn up a little too much and it stalled [my italics] it.”

There’s nothing about the engine stalling at all, but the term confuses dodos. (That’s what they were known by the 1930s barnstormers—itinerate pilots who landed on random farms, offered rides, and hangared their biplane in or near the barn.)

Reporters get confused, too, so when you read breaking news that an airplane’s engine stalled on takeoff, well, you pretty much know the whole story. Unless the kiwi reporter fails to mention when it’s a stall-spin accident.

So far as I can tell, the Wrights had one stall-spin accident, which also resulted in the airplane’s first fatality. RIP passenger Thomas Selfridge, September 17, 1908. While the term spin seems self-explanatory, a couple of decades later, droll, death-defying barnstormers nicknamed it augering in, namely because a drill was better known as an auger, and the bit’s spiral shape resembled a spin. Once a pilot augured in or otherwise died flying, pilots euphemistically said he bought the farm.

According to lexicologist John Ciardi in A Browser’s Dictionary (another favorite of mine), during World War II government insurance would be just enough to pay off the family farm. Ciardi also writes that the blimp took its name from the British army designation Type B Limp, differentiating it from the rigid-frame Zeppelin, invented by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. Webster’s Dictionary begs to differ: according to Webster, blimp is an “echoic coinage,” which means that “blimp” is the sound it makes when you fillip the airship’s side. Maybe Ciardi is right, and Webster never got close enough to fillip a Zeppelin.

Still, I’ve taken away a lot from the dictionary. (Can you believe that I read the dictionary? Yeah, probably.) Take pilot. Webster’s says it comes from the French pilote, which in turn derives from the Ancient Greek pedon, or oar, which is how Greeks steered their triremes. In Middle English small boats were cogges, and where the pilote sat grammatically evolved into cockpit. When enough water collected inside the boat and threatened to swamp it, the crew would bail out said water. And when an aircraft became stricken it would prompt the pilot to bail out too. He’d hit the silk—old-timey parachutes were made from silk—and thus join the Caterpillar Club.

After all, the caterpillar is where silk comes from.

Mae West
Mae West, actress and inspiration for World War II life jackets.

During World War II, if Allied pilots and crew were lucky enough to bail out over the English Channel, they’d bob in the water wearing their Mae West. To keep their head above water, a Mae West inflates largely in the chestal region, mimicking the actress who invited men to “come up and see [her] sometime.” The war drowned the language with aviation terms. Since few airliners remained in civilian hands, passengers not directly involved in the war effort were bumped in favor of those who were, namely officers. To keep ‘em flying, mechanics would regularly cannibalize wrecked warbirds for parts. And yet there’s one expression you don’t hear much these days: Between missions RAF pilots on a smoke break joked about Gandhi’s Revenge. Matches made in India lost their heads or explode when they ignited. Mahatma Gandhi, you see, pioneered passive resistance.

But back to aviation clubs. According to the late, great aviation legend Gordon Baxter, you don’t get into the Mile-High Club in an airliner. You must be at the controls with the autopilot disengaged, at a minimum altitude of 5,280 feet MSL.

But this he didn’t tell me: The first members of the Mile-High Club were Mrs. Waldo Polk and Lawrence Sperry. Yes, that Sperry. Mrs. Polk, whose husband was away in France, and Sperry were flying his Curtiss amphibian over Babylon, Long Island, testing the prototype autopilot, when one of them accidentally disengaged it. Before Sperry could recover, the Curtiss splashed down into Great South Bay, and a couple of duck hunters found the two crouching naked and wet near what was left of the airplane. While The New York Times played it discreetly, the tabloids had a field day.

Contemporary reports say Sperry and Mrs. Polk were engaged at an altitude of just a few hundred fleet, but I say let’s break Baxter’s rule just this once.

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