Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image

Being Brunel |

Scroll to top


No Comments

More Engineering Etymology

More Engineering Etymology

After pointing you all in the direction of 99% Invisible, I was reminded of another Radiotopia show that I regularly listen to- The Allusionist, whose musings on language inspired me to do a second post on etymology. So without further ado, here are the origins (probably- like most history, there’s a lot of interpretation and debate) of five more worlds in the common civil engineering tounge:


It’s anyone’s guess what buildings prior to the late 14th century stood on, because it wasn’t until then that we started recording the use of foundation in its geotechnical sense. From the Latin stem fund, meaning ‘bottom’, in its verb form fundare, it’s pleasing to see that linguistically we’ve never differentiated between founding a structure and the founding a nation!


Despite not really being a viable material until the discovery of the Bessemer Process in 1860, steel was known in ancient times. It is therefore a little harder to know why it was called ‘steel’. One suggestion is that it is related to the verb steel– to hold oneself unyielding and determined, which has a similar Proto-Germanic root that appears to pre-date the use of steel.


We first came under tension in the 1530s thanks to the French, who in turn took it from the Latin tensionem. More literally meaning ‘stretched’, it’s not hard to see how this word got co-opted for our engineering design. For a fun fact, compression came to us about a century prior!


First recorded in 1834 as the cementitious building material we all know and love today, concrete takes its name from the adjective (hard). Its Latin root concretus actually means ‘grown together’, having lent its meaning through the hardness that comes from materials that have condensed, clotted or congealed.


A word that exists to test how good engineers are at spelling; draughtsmen entered our lives in 1660 as a combination of draught and man. Just to add to the confusion the ‘draught’ is in fact related to its homonym ‘draft’. In 1200 it meant ‘to pull’ (taken from dragan– to drag or to draw-along/in). In the 14c, it gained its first drawing connotation as a rough-copy; a preliminary sketch- presumably from its dragan root. In the 15c, however, an alternative spelling ‘draft’ appeared to reflect the change in pronunciation. The original spelling, draught, thus retained only those meanings that didn’t get swept along by this transition.

Submit a Comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.