Today, the word dirigible is almost always used as a noun, referring to a zeppelin-type airship, and I always had it in my head that the word was related to rigid, a reference to the rigid frame of such an aircraft. But that is not the case. The word began life as an adjective meaning capable of being directed or steered. It was formed from the Latin verb dirigere, meaning to direct, steer, or guide. So a dirigible is a steerable balloon.

The adjective dates to the late sixteenth century but in the 1880s began to be applied specifically to balloons. By 1907 the word was being used as a noun to refer to Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s airships.

Cf. airship, blimp, zeppelin


Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. dirigible, adj. and n.

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