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Pronunciation: ohrni-thop-ter

Definition: A flying machine designed to operate by the flapping of wings


This word entered the English language in 1908 – almost simultaneously with the genesis of the word in French. It was assembled from the Greek words ‘ornis’, referring to ‘birds’, and ‘pteron’, meaning a ‘wing’.

Why This Word?

The concept of an ornithopter is genuinely fascinating. Although manned mechanical flight did not begin until 1903, the dream of such has probably always been with us. For centuries, attempts to make flying machines faltered on the use of the wing. Should it be rigid – like today’s airplanes – or should it be ‘flappy’?

Small scale model ornithopters were first successfully demonstrated in France in the 1850s. And, indeed, there have been some successful (and many unsuccessful!) attempts at building large scale working ornithopters. But – thankfully – the commercial ornithopter route has not been perused. Just imagine how uncomfortable that trans-Atlantic flight would feel if the wings were flapping like a duck.

How to use the word ornithopter in a sentence?

Ornithopter is not really a word that you can use in any metaphorical or figurative sense. It is, quite simply an ornithopter. So apart from the sentence “Hey look! It’s an Ornithopter!”, I can give you no further guidance!


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Written by Sean Carabini

Seán Carabini is a Dublin-based author. To date, Seán has written the humorous travel memoirs 'Sticking Out in Minnesota' and 'American Road', as well as 'American Road: The poems' - a book of travel poetry related to the memoir. Seán has also developed a podcast based on the book - subscribe to the American Road podcast today! Seán is a committee member of the Irish Writers' Union.

Chrissy Skelton is Seán Carabini's editor. A graduate of the University of Minnesota's Anthropology programme, Chrissy emerged armed with an arsenal of little-known words and cumbersome jargon - all of which will now be off-loaded onto 'unusedwords' readers!


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