catapult
n. an ancient military engine for hurling stones, arrows, etc.

You might be wondering why, in a segment normally devoted to esotery and foreign words, I’ve used something as relatively pedestrian as ‘catapult.’

Well, as in most cases, it boils down to etymology. What you’re likely to find is that catapult comes to English through the Latin catapulta, a war machine for throwing, which was in turn taken from the original Greek katapaltēs (καταπάλτης), from kata pállein, which mean ‘against’ and ‘throw or hurl,’ respectively. Hence, an object capable of hurling (something) against (something else).

However, the much cooler etymology—possibly lost because of the inexplicable definition swap between “catapult” and “ballista” something in the fourth century—is katapaltēs, which means “shield piercer” (peltes meaning ‘small shield’ and being the etymology root for our use of ‘pelt’ as an animal fur).

At its inception, the catapult hurled sharp darts, not blunt objects like rocks. It was meant to kill enemy soldiers regardless of shields or armor.

§1753 · March 7, 2007 · Tags: , , , ·

2 Comments to “Wednesday’s Word: catapult”

  1. Josh says:

    I’d never heard about that second possible etymology. That’s pretty interesting. I’m trying to visualize how a catapult would hurl darts effectively, though. I would think that the arc in the swing of the catapult arm would cause them to have too much of an angle to hit shield bearers head on. I suppose the darts would be just as effective coming down on their heads…

  2. Ben says:

    Well, remember that what we know as a catapult today is not what was originally called katapeltes. It was originally a crossbow, essentially. Or, if you prefer to think of larger bodies, it was like a ballista. In the fourth century CE, for some reason, a catapult became a stone hurler and a ballista became a dart thrower (albeit a very big one).

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