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Engineering Etymology

Engineering Etymology

Engineers are not known for having a good relationship with the written word. But it is the words of engineers that this post focuses on. Today we’ll be taking a look at the origin of some of our best loved vocabulary, because as a wise man once said: “Those who don’t learn their engineering etymology are doomed to continue life completely unhindered.”


Pretty much the poster child of civil engineering; our infrastructure. First recorded circa 1887 as a french combination of infra and structure. Infra is Latin for below or beneath. Structure took its construction form in the mid 15th century from the Latin structura, which meant to fit together, arrange or order; to build or assemble (from the less impressive strues– “heap”). So infrastructure is literally the building beneath our feet!


The humble bolt comes from much more brutal origins. Originally from the proto-germanic bultas, it was an Old English term for a short, stout arrow with a heavy head. In Middle English it became a generic term for other short metal rods with wider ends; a piece of imagery that lives on today in our engineering bolts. One could even argue that when the Cheesegrater started firing its bolts it was just fulfilling their etymological specification- but I’m not sure it’ll hold muster.


Civil engineers are unexpectedly important in today’s meaning of the term “engineer”.

From the latin ingeniare, then the french engigneor, it came to us in the mid 14th century as a maker of military engines- increasing in scope for all military constructs. This is why we have the clunky term- “civil” engineer; lit. not military. However, as we entered the industrial era and the work of engineers tended towards the civil (with the likes of Brunel) the default meaning shifted to an all-round inventor, designer and maintainer.


Although not massively impressive, I like this definition. From the proto-germanic baumaz meaning tree. The Vikings probably brought us this word with their ships, where timber (trees) was used on the transverses to hold the ship together. For a bonus round, the flange on a beam is considered to originate from the french flanc; like the military widening maneuver.


Nothing says engineering like a good solid bridge. There’s a hint here that this word is also of proto-germanic origin. In fact, it has the same root as Beam, from the times when crossing a river meant sticking a log across it. Interestingly similar “via beam” deviations can be seen in Gaulish, Slavic and Serbian!

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  1. Haha like the idea that the Cheesegrater connections were mis-specified in an etymological sense!

    That quote from Churchill is interesting, not sure I agree with him though. Lots of things in life no one could have seen them coming. Read a really good book this year about that [].