Posted by: Kenn Hermann | January 1, 2008

The Origin of “Airline”


Many of the words we use for new technologies have their origin in earlier eras and very different contexts. Those words have now been transformed to represent new technological phenomena, while the original meanings have been forgotten completely. We fail to notice this transformation because we believe the new word is original. (I’m not sure what to call this process of transformation; it is not a metaphor or analogy.)

I stumbled across one of those words just the other day, one that I had never thought of before as having this kind of history. I was reading a 19th c. overview of the surveying of that portion of northeast Ohio known as the Western Reserve. One of the surveyors noted the difficulties of maintaining an “air-line” through the dense forests. The context made it crystal clear what he meant: a straight line through the air unimpeded by any obstacle, something essential for accurate surveying. We might now use a phrase like “as the crow flies” to mean a straight line or the shortest distance between two points. Thus was born the modern term “airline” to refer to a new machine that flies in a straight line through the air unimpeded by any obstacles.

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