peloton / platoon

Unless you follow the sport of cycling, you are not likely to run across the word peloton, which means a group of cyclists, usually the main mass of cyclists in the race.

Peloton is a French word. It’s literal meaning is little ball and in this sense it dates to the early 15th century in French.

By 1616 the French were using the word to mean a small group of soldiers, presumably because a small group of soldiers in tight formation resembled a ball. The word platoon is a variant of peloton, appearing as ploton in Middle French by 1572 and as plauton by 1611.

Platoon was the first form to be borrowed into English. From Robert Monro’s 1637 His Expedition With The Worthy Scots Regiment Called Mac-keyes:

Eight Corporall-ships of Musketiers, being thirty-two Rots divided in foure Plottons, every Plotton being eight in front, led off by a Captaine.

We see the -oon ending by 1687, when John Dryden uses it in his translation of Louis Maimbourg’s History of the League:

Thus was the Royal Army Marshall’d, which consisted of betwixt 9 and 10000 Foot, and 2800 Horse, divided into seven Squadrons, each of them with a Plotoon of Forlorn Hope before them.

By 1734 the modern spelling of platoon was in use.

The military sense of peloton made the jump to English a bit later, by the beginning of the 18th century. A Military and Sea Dictionary of 1702 cross-references it with the word platoon. And there is this from Nicholas Tindal’s 1744 translation of Rapin de Thoyras’ History of England:

Before he suffered any peloton of his battalion to discharge.

As for cycling, the French were using peloton in the cycling sense by 1884 and this sense had transferred over to English by the mid-20th century. From Cycling magazine of 12 July 1939:

A prominent worker at the head of the peloton throughout the race.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)

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