Small Plane Crash

This Monday, May 20, 2019 photo provided by Aerial Leask shows good Samaritans off of fishing vessels attempting to bring in a floatplane that crashed in the harbor of Metlakatla, Alaska. Officials said the pilot and passenger aboard the plane died, and the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash. (Aerial Leask via AP)

KODIAK — Springtime is typically a time of rejuvenation in Alaska: the sun is staying out longer, regional festivals — like Kodiak’s Crabfest — inject excitement (and tourist dollars) into small communities that expect a robust tourism season, and school graduation ceremonies inspire us.

But our spring this year, this week, has been marred by three plane crashes in the span of only nine days, killing and injuring both Alaskans and tourists.

The words plane obviously predates the word airplane by about 300 years in English.  Airplane was coined in 1907 by the British, who had been using the word aeroplane since 1866. Of course, airplanes hadn’t been invented in 1866; they were using the word to describe the shell casings of beetle wings, as the French had been doing with the word since 1855.

It was the French who combined the Greek word aero, meaning air, and the Latin verb planer, meaning to soar. 

The Greek aero could mean mist, clouds, or atmosphere, but etymologists aren’t too sure from where the Greeks borrowed the word. It could possibly be related to the Proto-Indo-European root awer, meaning to raise (as clouds and mist often do).

In the Odyssey, Homer uses the word to mean primarily mist or fog, but other Indo-European languages use their word for air to mean anything from wind, to the sun’s brightness, to the sky.

Before the word air came to the British Isles in the early 1300s from the French, they used the word lyft or luft, as in loft, which meant the sky or upper atmosphere. You can still see this in the modern German luft, as in their Luftwaffe, their version of the Air Force in World War II.

Planer is derived from the Latin noun planus, meaning level or flat. The prolific Proto-Indo-European root pele also means flat or to spread, as seen in words like floor, palm, plastic, and even Poland, which literally means a land of fields.

In 1873, the word aeroplane was first used in reference to a flying machine, even though British Romantic poets used other words that didn’t quite catch on: air vessel, air boat, and also Lord Byron’s attempt at coining aeromotive in 1865. Even the ancient Greeks used the word aeroplanos to refer to something wandering in the air, like a leaf or errant plastic shopping bag.

Then, in 1907, the British changed the spelling somewhat to airplane (which is more like the French spelling), which quickly caught on in the United States, but took a little while to replace aeroplane in England, thought aeroplane is still common in British English.

Earlier this week, six Russian military airplanes—fighter jets and bombers—were seen by the US Air Force at two different locations in international airspace approaching Alaska. While Russian air patrols near Alaskan airspace is not anything new, it is rare that two patrols came near us simultaneously. A couple of F-22s intercepted the Russian patrol.

We first see intercept in written English around 1400, and it had two definitions: to cut off a line, and to prevent the spread of a disease. It comes directly from the Latin interceptus, meaning to take or seize in passing.

The prefix inter- means between, and the base word cipere is a form of the Latin verb capere, meaning to take or catch.

The PIE root, kap, means to grasp and, like the root pele, is also prolific. You can see it in modern words such as capture, forceps, hawk, prince, recipe, and even sashay, a form of the French word for chase.

We are grateful that these F-22s intercepted the Russians, even as the US military presence in Alaska is bolstered because of exercises associated with Northern Edge training, which still has environmentalists worried about their impacts on migratory animals.

The Middle English word wirien, from which we get worry, originally meant to kill or injure by biting or shaking the throat. 


The Old English root wyrgan meant to strangle, and the PIE root wer meant to turn or bend.

So, essentially, before the 1600s, to worry meant to strangle something as a dog or wolf does. But in the 1400s, the word took on a figurative meaning to annoy or bother, and became the primary meaning by the 17th century. That original meaning is now obsolete.

But it wasn’t until 1822 that worry began to refer to mental distress or trouble, becoming more of an emotional strangling than physical one.

Let’s hope for a less-worrisome ending to this Alaskan springtime.

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