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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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. 

Jared Griffin is associate professor of English at Kodiak College. Contact him at griffinjared1@gmail.com.