This week, Florida mailman Doug Hughes landed a gyrocopter on the lawn of the US Capitol in a bizarre act of protest against the corrupting influence of money in politics. The incident has compelled many questions, not the least of which is: What’s a gyrocopter? I’ll leave the technical explanation of this rotorcraft to the experts, but let’s have a look at the etymology of gyrocopter here.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OEDS) finds gyrocopter in print as early as 1915 and notes, as you probably guessed, that it is formed after helicopter. Gyrocopter joins gyro– and copter. The first element comes from the Greek γῦρος (gyros, “ring” or “circle”), which we see in gyre, gyroscope, and gyro, as in that delicious lamb meat roasted on a turning spit. Evidenced by 1947 (OED), copter is shortened from helicopter, and, etymologically, can’t get off the ground on its own.
As I have done, perhaps you’ve supposed helicopter fuses heli– and copter, some kind of “sun-seizer,” guessing the Greek root for sun (hello-) and a cognate to the Latin capere (“to seize”). If so, your knowledge of English phonology is sound but wrong. If we properly divide this word, it’s helico- and -pter. The first part pervades the fiber of your very DNA, as it is connected to helix, from the Greek ἕλιξ (helix), which Liddell and Scott gloss as “anything which assumes a spiral shape.” Its adjectival form is ἕλικος (helikos). The second part pervades the fabric of your childhood, as it is connected to pterodactyl, from the Greek πτερόν (pteron), “wing.”
Thus, a helicopter is a “spiral wing,” used by French inventor Gustave Ponton d’Amécourt in 1861 for a machine he devised (hélicoptère). While the modern helicopter doesn’t appear until the first half of the 20th century, the word keeps spinning, as heli– lives on as a prefix (or pseudoprefix) for all things helicopter (e.g., helipad) and copter serves to name other kinds of rotorcraft (say, gyrocopter).
Words of a “Feather”
Now, the Greek πτερόν features that unusual pt– cluster, which helps explains why we split helicopter as we do. In English, we keep the p silent. In Greek, the p is voiced. That pt– might seem strange, but it is related to some rather familiar words: feather, pin (like a peg), pen (like the writing instrument), compete, symptom, hippopotamus, and many more. The Proto-Indo-European root is *pet-, meaning to “rush” or “fly,” and evolved into many forms down the Germanic lines (feather), Latin (pin, pen, compete), and Greek (symptom, hippopotamus, pterodactyl). The Latin verb petere (“to seek,” “to attack,” et al.) is behind that compete, as well as petulant, which some might use to characterize Doug Hughes–and petition, which some might have advised him to do in lieu of his gyrocopter.