Printable Version
Pronunciation: -dê-pêlt Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: A trebuchet or other ballistic mechanism for launching a projectile (stone, large arrow, aircraft from a carrier) by a line stretched between two points that is retracted to create such tension that, when released, it forces the projectile powerfully forward.

Notes: Look out fortress!Be careful to avoid the common misspelling of today's word as catapault, currently appearing on about 80,000 Web pages (May 2015) and correct anyone you hear mispronounce the word this way. A curious side note: the manufacture of catapults in ancient Greece was known as belopoietics from Greek belos "projectile" + poietike "making". Catapults persevered until medieval times: an old National Geographic article referred to those engaged in the use of catapults as the "rock stars of the Middle Ages". This word may be used as a verb to catapult "to rapidly launch", as 'a movie that catapulted someone to stardom'.

In Play: We have become so proficient at war in the past 100 years that today's noun is seldom used. The Navy, however, today uses steam-powered catapults to launch planes from the decks of aircraft carriers: "The catapult lost its steam and dumped Palmer's plane over the edge of the carrier." It is widely used as a verb, though, "When Hardy Eaton fell on the other end of the seesaw Sue sat so soulfully on, she was catapulted to unexpected heights."

Word History: English snitched today's Good Word from French catapulte, the natural descendant of Latin catapulta, which somehow migrated from Greek katapaltes. Katapaltes comprises kata- "against" + pallein "to swing, sway". Pallein comes from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root pal- "touch, feel, shake", which we see in Latin palpare "to touch, feel", whose participle, palpatus, is behind the English medical term palpate. The medical term for "eyelid", palpebra, may well share the same root. Since the [p] of PIE became [f] in Germanic languages, we are not surprised to find it in the guise of German fhlen "to feel" and English feel. (We feel very grateful to Pierre Laberge of Sudbury, Ontario, for catapulting this word to further fame in our Good Word series.)

Dr. Goodword,

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