Hear the word “chopper” and your mind is likely immediately taken back to the famous line spoken by Arnold Schwarzenegger, “Get to the chopper”, in the 1987 movie, Predator.
But how and when did helicopters even begin to be referred to choppers?
We know – and anyone who is old enough can likely tell you – that during the Korean War, which took place between 1950 and 1953, helicopters began to be called choppers in military slang.
Furthermore, according to the OEDS 1972-86 – A Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, we can trace the first time the word chopper was used to refer to a helicopter in print to an article called “New Lexicon for War” in the New York Herald Tribune. This was printed on 16th December 1951.
However, what we don’t and cannot definitively say is why, although there are several logical assumptions.
The first attempt in the literature to explain why the term chopper was used comes from A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Volume II: The Supplement, by Eric Partridge. He stated that it was because a helicopter has “a blade that could chop off your head”.
This sounds logical enough, but likely doesn’t offer a full explanation. We can also point to a few more reasons.
Firstly, there is a clear similarity in appearance between an individual rotor blade and a meat cleaver or chopper, especially as helicopter blades looked a bit different back then.
Secondly, according to Merriam-Webster, a chopper also refers to “a device that interrupts an electric current or a beam of radiation (such as light) at short regular intervals.” This has an obvious similarity to a hovering helicopter when viewed against the backdrop of the sun.
Finally, and the reason that is most commonly given as to why a helicopter is called a chopper, is that the rotor of a helicopter sounds a lot like “chop-chop-chop” as it spins through the air, especially the Bell 47 helicopter that was used during the Korean war.