rockets & missiles

Rockets and missiles have been too much with us.  Where do the words come from?


Originally referring to “fireworks,” rocket derives from the Italian rocchetto–passing into English from the French roquette in the early 1600s–where it referred to something far gentler and more productive: a “bobbin,” a spool around which yarn is wound. The word is a diminutive form of rocca, a “distaff,” a textile technology similar to the “bobbin” in that it is a staff for holding flax, wool, or other fibers for spinning. The propulsive rocket, then, is named from its resemblance to the cylindrical shape of the distaff.

“Distaff” by Pearson Scott Foresman. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

That puts a whole new spin on yarn bombs, doesn’t it?

Mostly likely, the Italian rocchetto was a loanword from a Germanic source. Old Norse has rokkr and Old High German rocko, giving English rock (not that rock, but like rocket, a “distaff”), whose threads leads us back to a Germanic root, *rukkon. Proto-Indo-Europeanists posit a broader Germanic and Celtic root in *ruk-, meaning “fabric” and “spun yarn.”

I think we should put seamstresses and tailors in charge of geopolitics.

Related are ratchet (from the French racquet, “head of a lance”) as well as rocambole (a kind of garlic, shallot, or leek, via the Germanic rocko) and rochet (from French, naming the white “over-tunic” for priests’  choir dress). Rochet‘s clerical associations lead us to the frock, whose unknown origin a few have placed in *ruk-. 


Now principally a noun, missile came into English in the mid-1600s as an adjective, meaning “capable of being thrown.” It was launched ultimately from Latin, missilis, signifying much the same, from the past participial form–missus–of the verb “to send,” mittere. It could also mean “let go” or “throw.”

The derivatives of this verb in English are plentiful. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots lists the following (and keep in mind most have additional, derivational forms, like commission or unremitting):

Mass, mess, missile, mission, missive, admit, Christmas, commit, compromise, demit, dismiss, emit, intermit, intromit, Lammas, Martinmas, Michaelmas, omit, permit, premise, pretermit, promise, remit, submit, surmise, transmit.

Get the message? That’s another.

We’re not really sure where mittere comes from. An older form may be smitterewhich has compelled a few etymologists to propose a Proto-Indo-European root, *(s)meit-, “to throw” or “send.”

In his work, Jordan Shipley saw this *(s)meit- also as the source of smite and smegma and immaculate, as the origin of mittere and commented:

The first sense seems to have been ‘to throw,’ as cow dung at a wall, to dry for fuel. I have seen freight cars at a siding in India with their south sides completely  covered with spats of drying dung.

There’s no conclusive evidence for Shipley’s etymology, but, hey, I’ll take yarn bombs and flung dung over rockets and missiles any day.

Except for space rockets. I think we’re all secretly–hell, openly–space nerds.

∫ r ∫


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