Here are three facts that, taken together, have puzzled me for a while:
- Skyscrapers are so called because they are such tall buildings that they scrape the sky.
- Scraping is a kind of movement.
- Buildings do not move.
So what the hell’s going on?
The answer is that “skyscraper” had earlier meanings, more associated with movement. The OED’s first record of “skyscraper” to mean a tall building is from 1883. But its previous uses had included:
- a ball hit high into the air (from 1866)
- a tall man (from 1857)
- a tall hat or bonnet (from 1800).
But the most common early use of the word seems to have been nautical, meaning a particular kind of sail placed at the very top of a tall mast:
Sky-scrapers. These sails are triangular… The foot spreads half of the royal yards (1794)
Four vessels hove in sight…with…royals and skyscrapers set (1797)
There were studding-sails set aloft and alow; royals, sky-scrapers, and moon-rakers (1803)
James Bond fans take note! Although it turns out that “moonraker” is older and ruder, dating back to 1767 as a term for the natives of Wiltshire. Apparently these witless bumpkins, seeing the moon reflected in a pond, would mistake it for a block of cheese and use rakes to get at it.
But the first known use of “skyscraper” is the name of a racehorse born in 1786. Skyscraper, owned by the fifth Duke of Bedford, won the Epsom Derby in 1789. He was the foal of a racer called Highflyer and later sired another called Skyrocket – all very tall and very fast.
Skyscraper seems to have passed into legend, because by 1826, his name was being used as a general term for a tall horse.
So, from equestrianism and seafaring, “skyscraper” became a byword for something tall. Then, in the late 19th century, when buildings were starting to shoot upwards in American cities, it came easily to mind.
Finally, there’s a more figurative use, to mean a tall tale:
My yarn won’t come so well after your sky-scrapers of love. (1840)
Aren’t words fun?