Here’s how the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española defines the adjective coleóptero (which also functions as a noun) : ‘Se dice de los insectos que tienen boca dispuesta para masticar, caparazón consistente y dos élitros córneos que cubren dos alas membranosas, plegadas al través cuando el animal no vuela.’ English-speaking entomologists use the equivalent coleopteran, and the rest of us usually say beetle (though some other insects like weevils and fireflies are in this group as well).

Scientists created the technical term coleóptero/coleopteran from the Greek words koleon ‘sheath’ and pteron ‘wing,’ a reference to the fact that a beetle has two sheaths that cover each of its membranous wings when the insect is at rest (and in fact the sheaths evolved as modifications of what were originally forewings).

While coleóptero/coleopteran is hardly a common word, the name of a much larger flying thing is: it’s helicóptero/helicopter, literally ‘[an aircraft with a] helical wing.’ Most English speakers analyze the word as heli + copter, even to the point that copter exists as a colloquial shortening of the compound and heli- serves as a first element in heliport, but etymology thumbs its nose at that division and insists that helicopter is really helico ‘helical’ + pter ‘wing.’

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Feb 26, 2012 @ 18:18:48

    Here’s a tidbit that suddenly seems interesting. I knew a fellow who worked for years at Bell Helicopter in the Fort Worth area, and then repaired helicopters for the military – independent contractor, I believe.

    In any case, he never referred to “copters”, but only to “helos”. It seems to be one of those instances where the professionals tend toward one shortening, and the “outsiders” prefer another.

    Another idle thought: do you suppose Beetle Bailey was a coleopterist?


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Feb 26, 2012 @ 20:44:56

      Thanks for the information about “helos,” a term that’s new to me. You’re probably right about the split in terminology between professionals and outsiders. As for Beetle Bailey, why do I doubt that he was a coleopterist?


  2. Subhan Zein
    Mar 03, 2012 @ 17:57:14

    Oh, nice! So that’s why! When I saw it, I thought that it’s where the word “Cleopatra” comes from! LOL.:-)

    Anyway, your posting on this is truly enlightning..Thanks for that! 🙂

    Subhan Zein


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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