Word of the Day Masok: It's a Bird, It's a Plane – It's a Flying Machine With Two Names

Today's Israelis refer to the whirlybird as "masok," but are just as comfortable calling it "helikopter."

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
This is a masok, or helikopter - take your pick. It's flying by a pylon.
This is a masok, or helikopter - take your pick. It's flying by a pylon.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The Hebrew word for helicopter is ma-SOK. But before we begin discussion of this word, let’s talk about the English word – "helicopter" – itself.

In 1861, the French inventor Gustave de Ponton d'Amécourt built an aluminum, steam-powered model helicopter of sorts. The machine never did take off, but what did was the name he gave it – hélicoptère. He derived that from two Greek words – helix (“spiral”) and pteron (“wing”).

It would be his compatriots who would get the credit for actually getting a manned helicopter off the ground. In 1907, the brothers Jacques and Louis Breguet got their "Gyroplane No.1" to fly. At the same time, more or less, another Frenchman – Paul Cornu – did the same, getting his "Cornu Hélicoptère" to lift off the ground, though it would prove unstable.

Then came World War II, which spurred – as only war can – the practical application of this flying marvel. Both the Nazis and the Allies took the helicopter beyond being a mere curiosity and turned it into a fighting machine.

The first Israeli helicopter unit was founded in 1958, by the Israel Air Force. At first they were called helikopterim (the plural form of helikopter). Then finally somebody came up with a Hebrew word for the thing, although there is some controversy about who coined the word masok.

According to some, the word was invented by Amos Ben-Vered, a journalist for Haaretz, who used it in his articles in the late 1950s. But Uri Yarom, the commander of Israel’s first helicopter unit, says it was Israeli President Itzhak Ben Tzvi who coined the word while visiting the unit’s base at roughly the same time.

Whether it was Ben-Vered or Ben Tzvi, the word is derived from the root n-s-k, which means “go up”, a root that ultimately derives from the equivalent Aramaic root s-l-k. Today the man in the street will use masok to describe the beast – but the word "helikopter" is also familiar, and is not scorned. It even has its own page in the Hebrew Wiki dictionary, with masok getting an entry of its own.

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