airship

Today, the word airship refers to a dirigible aircraft, a flying machine with a rigid frame that is buoyed by gas bags and powered by engines, but it wasn’t always that specific. Originally, airship referred to any type of balloon or aircraft, and it wasn’t until 1900 and the advent of Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s flying machines that the word started to be applied specifically to dirigibles.

The word is, of course, a compound of air + ship and dates to at least 1817. But English wasn’t the first language to compound similar words. The German Luftschiff dates to 1735 and the French navire aérien to 1784. The English word was undoubtedly modeled on these.

Airship continued to be used to refer to other types of aircraft, including airplanes, through the 1920s, so if you find an old use of the term you have to rely on the context to tell you exactly what type of aircraft it refers to.

Cf. dirigible, blimp, zeppelin


Source:

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, June 2008, s. v. airship, n.

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