Log book of the ship Begnal, 1807. MS 1165, William Darlington Papers. New-York Historical Society.
Some words wear a patina of history that make them appear to have been around forever. Others, like “skyscraper,” seem inherently modern, embodying the age which first saw the buildings they describe. By complete accident, while looking at an early 19th-century log book in the papers of Philadelphia physician and botanist, William Darlington, we recently stumbled across the word “skyscraper” in a very different context.
Unidentified skyscraper under construction, undated. PR 24, George P. Hall & Son Photograph Collection, New-York Historical Society
In fact, while our contemporary usage dates from about 1883, it is one of many according to the Oxford English Dictionary and hardly the earliest. According to OED, that goes to a 1788 reference to a horse of remarkable height. However, in the log book “sky-scraper” is a nautical term describing the triangular sky-sail that flew at the very top of a mast and dates to the early 1790s.
The adaptation of the term actually makes some sense. It is certainly appropriate for the highest sail, and with a little imagination, the way the sails stack on top of one another, one can see how the term migrated to the realm of architecture.