Scraping the sky, raking the moon, tall tales and horseplay

Here are three facts that, taken together, have puzzled me for a while:

  1. Skyscrapers are so called because they are such tall buildings that they scrape the sky.
  2. Scraping is a kind of movement.
  3. 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?

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