Words about words: Aloft

Short word meaning in the atmosphere or space above the Earth

The Hindenburg aloft and afire

Photo: (Public Domain) National Museum of American History
Hindenburg airship aloft and catching fire while attempting to dock with its mooring mast at Lakehurst Naval Air Station, New Jersey.

Asker, Norway

The word “aloft” descends from two Old Norse adjectives, á lopt of motion and á lopti of position, both which entered early English as o loft and o lofte. Varieties of these early English forms first appeared about 1200 A.D. in Moral Ode, a poem instructing proper Christian conduct. 

Nearly two centuries on, the lofte form was used by Chaucer about 1386 in the “Man of Law’s Tale,” the fifth chapter of the Canterbury Tales. Around 1400, that form appeared again in Testament of Love, attributed to Chaucer but actually written by Thomas Usk, the undersheriff of London, who was hanged in 1388 at the command of King Richard II, whose life was portrayed in Shakespeare’s play Richard II, believed to have been written about 1595. 

With time, the distinction between the two words in English was lost, with the muting of the final e in lofte, which led to the modern adverb and preposition aloft, which first appeared in the 19th century.

In the 20th century, the word aloft gained international repute as the designator of the location of the fire that destroyed the Hindenburg airship, May 6, 1937, as it attempted to dock with its mooring mast at the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, N.J. The Hindenburg was the last of a series of passenger-carrying rigid airships built in Germany in the 1930s, with the intent of capturing a sizable part of the transatlantic passenger traffic. It was gigantic, the largest airship ever built, with a length of 776 feet, approaching that of the Cunard Line liners of the time, such as the Queen Mary (length 1,019 feet). It carried far fewer passengers than the Queen Mary but was significantly faster, flying at a speed of 81 mph, compared with 32.8 mph for the ship.

The Hindenburg entered service, with 62 successful flights through April 1937. In the evening of May 6, a score of press photographers gathered at Lakehurst for the landing of the Hindenburg, which they assumed would be routine. Among them was The Associated Press photographer Murray Becker, with a 4×5-inch Graflex Speed Graphic press camera. At about 7 p.m., as the Hindenburg approached its mooring mast, an explosion was heard and in 47 seconds, it was consumed by flame. In those 47 seconds, photographer Becker exposed three negatives. The day after, Becker’s photos of the disaster appeared in newspapers around the globe.

Aside from being a stunning visual eyewitness report of a disaster, Becker’s photos had an impact on newspaper readers that words alone cannot convey. Thereafter, newspaper articles increasingly were considered credible only if supported by images.

Further reading: Image of Hindenburg Airship Aloft and in Flames, National Museum of American History, photo and explanatory text of disaster, link: americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1321349.

This article originally appeared in the July 23, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.