In a Word: Opening Up ‘Parachute’

Don’t jump from an airplane without one.

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

This week we’re looking into the history of the word parachute, but before we do, I want you to give some thought to when you think the word first came into use. Got a year in mind? Read on.

Like so many modern English words, parachute comes from French. French being a Romance language, the history of the two parts of parachute can be traced back to Latin. We’ll start with the second part:

The French chute came from the Old French cheoite, both words meaning “a fall” – what you’re involved in if you’re using a parachute for its intended purpose. That Old French word is the past participle of cheoir (Modern French choir, but not the kind you sing in), the verb meaning “to fall,” which traces to the Latin verb cadere “to fall,” whose other descendants include deciduous, decadence, and recidivism.

As any skydiver will tell you, falling is the easy part. Though parachute is often abbreviated to just chute nowadays, what that para- at the beginning adds is rather important.

You can probably think of half a dozen words that start with the prefix para- without really trying. The Greek para- prefix usually indicates “alongside,” as in words like parallel, paramilitary, and parable. But as I mentioned, French is a Romance language. Although a lot of Greek words and word forms were transformed and transmitted through Latin to other languages, Latin itself had a prefix that developed into a separate para- in Italian. This para- means “defense; protection against.”

Some of those half-dozen para- words you came up with probably use this Latinate prefix: Did you think of parasol? It protects its user from the sun. How about parapet? That’s a protective wall that rises to the petto, Italian for “breast.”

And, of course, a parachute — combining an Italian prefix and a French word — protects its user from a fall.

Now, when was parachute coined? It’s probably no surprise that the concept of the parachute is quite old — there’s a sketch of parachute in Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, and evidence that the idea was “borrowed” from a past inventor — but these early versions used rigid frames. The first “modern” soft parachute, as well as the name for it, came from the work of Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard.

Blanchard was obsessed with air travel. Not only did he invent the first soft, silk parachute, but he was also the first person to cross the English Channel by air … in a hot-air balloon. He was also the first person to successfully use his soft parachute during an emergency. According to him, at least: He claims that he used a parachute to escape an exploding hot air balloon, but no one else was around to verify it.

If you were imagining this all happened as a result of 20th-century military advancements, you were off by a more than a century. Blanchard is credited with coining the word parachute in 1784, and his supposed emergency use of it was in 1793.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. What an interesting word, parachute, with a fascinating history. From a young age I was fascinated with the idea of being up and away in a beautiful balloon from the 18th and 19 centuries. The only form of ‘flight’ until the invention of the airplane in the early 20th.

    Such balloons necessitated having a reliable parachute if there was an explosion or some other cause of an altitude loss. Of course, I don’t really know if those balloons got high enough for a successful escape or not. Probably not. Love the words ‘parapet’ and ‘petto’ also. The best ones usually are with Latin, Italian and French connections.

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