By the end of this post I want to get to the word helicopter, but first I will consider a different group of words: telephone, telegraph, telegram, telescope, and so on. These are all compound words, and it’s easy to see the parts of the compounds: the first part is tele and the second part is, respectively, phone, graph, gram, and scope. I don’t think that the form tele occurs on its own in English, at least not in that form, but the independent forms phone and graph and scope certainly occur. I don’t think I have come across gram as an independent word, except as a unit of weight, and that’s really a different word.
In any case, all of these forms are originally Greek. The first part of these compounds come from the Greek word têle (the first “e” is long, the Greek letter eta, and the second is short, the Greek letter epsilon). This is an adverb, and means “far off”, “from a distance”. It also occurs in a number of compounds in Greek; for example, it is the first part of Telemachos (the name of the son of Odysseus), which means something like “he who fights from a distance”. So all of the English compounds have something to do with distance. The second parts of the compounds are straightforward. The Greek word “phonê” means “a sound”, so a telephone transmits sound at a distance. “Graph” and “gram” both derive from the Greek verb “grapho”, which means “to write”. In English the verb “to telegraph” means “to transmit a message at a distance”; the noun usually means the mechanism used to do that, and the message itself is the “telegram”. The Greek verb “skopeo” means “to look” or “to see”, so a telescope allows you to see at a distance. These roots appear in other compounds, such as megaphone or photograph or hologram or microscope.
There are lots of “têle” words in English, and I won’t bother to list them, but I haven’t yet mentioned one of the most obvious, which is television. This is actually a compound formed from the Greek “têle” and the Latin “video”, which means “to see”. Now and again you come across linguistic purists who disapprove of such mixed compounds; they say that a compound should be all Greek or all Latin. I don’t see anything wrong with the word “television”, and I can’t imagine that it’s going to disappear from the language anytime soon. Many “tele” compounds in English are mixed forms: telemarketing, telecommunications, teleprompter, and so on.
The word teleology, by the way, comes from a completely different Greek root: telos (the first “e” is short), which means “the completion of something”, so teleology is the study of the ends of things, or an explanation of something by its completion.
Now what about helicopter? This is a compound word, as well. It’s clearly related to the words helipad and heliport. These seem to be formed from heli plus pad and heli plus port. By analogy one might suppose that helicopter is formed from heli and copter, and I would bet that a lot of people would agree with that division. I would guess that the division of helicopter into heli and copter led to the construction of helipad and heliport.
As it happens, however, the historical derivation of helicopter is helico and pter; helico comes from the Greek helix (with a short “e”) which means “a spiral”; and. of course, helix is an English word as well, as in the double helix of the DNA strand. The Greek word pteron means “feather” and also “a winged creature”. So a helicopter is an aircraft whose wings move in a spiral.
Another English word that comes to mind is pterodactyl, which means something like a creature with feathers on its fingers. The form “pter” is also used in the names of various insects. Winged insects in general form the subclass pterygota, and wingless insects form the subclass apterygota (where the initial a– is a negative, as in amoral or atypical). The four most common kinds of insects are the coleoptera (beetles), the lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), the diptera (flies), and the hymenoptera (wasps, bees, and ants), all named for the kinds of wings they have. But these are all scientific terms (I had to look them up), and probably not commonly used in ordinary language. Perhaps lepidopterist is more familiar—a person who studies moths and butterflies.
When we say the word pterodactyl, we don’t pronounce the initial “p”, we just say “terodactyl”, because English doesn’t allow the initial combination “pt”. Greek did allow that combination, however, and there are quite a few Greek words that begin “pt”, one of my favorite is the Greek verb “ptairo”, which means “to sneeze”. In the word helicopter, however, we can pronounce both the “p” and the “t”, because we can attach the “p” to the preceding “o”, as we divide the word “hel-i-cop-ter”, even though etymologically it is “helico-pter”.
Different languages have different rules for what sounds can occur together. The laws of sound combination are called “phonotactics”, and that will be the topic of my next Etymological Entertainment, in a week or two.