Where does the word “skyscraper” come from? Did it have a prior meaning? The history of the word referring to tall buildings is not so clear cut.
The Empire State Building. The Burj Khalifa. Sears Tower. One World Trade Center. Everyone knows what a skyscraper is. The dictionary.com definition of a skyscraper is:
“a relatively tall building of many stories, especially one for office or commercial use.” and
“Architecture. a building of exceptional height completely supported by a framework, as of girders, from which the walls are suspended, as opposed to a building supported by load-bearing walls.”
These are the common definitions that everyone knows. But where did the word “skyscraper” come from? Has it always meant the same thing? What were tall buildings called before the word “skyscraper?”
Before the word skyscraper described enormous buildings, it was used to describe anything that “stood out.” You could refer to a tall man, a high-standing horse, a sky-sail, etc. by using the word skyscraper.
The Italian word grattacielo means scraping the sky. This was pointed out by Dutch skyscraper researcher Gerard Peet. It was in use since the early 13th century, and described a tall man. It is now the modern day word for skyscraper.
Skyscraper comes from the combination of the word sky and the word scraper. The word scraper dates back to the Old Norse word skrapa, which means to erase. Today, it means to use a tool to apply pressure to something. A skyscraper essentially erases the sky by sticking out and blocking it.
Sources for the first usage of the word skyscraper are unclear. The oldest confirmed reference in print was in The Chicago Daily. It appeared on February 25, 1883, in the New York Gossip section. The subtitle under “The High-building Craze,” read “Our skyscrapers.” It can’t be a coincidence that the Home Insurance Building, known as the first skyscraper, opened in 1884. It stood 10 stories (138 feet) and was located in, you guessed it, Chicago. And so began the “skyscraper craze” that continues to this day.
Currently, a skyscraper refers to a building over 492 feet. It’s only a matter of time before that height requirement rises, as the Home Insurance Building was only 138 feet. New terms such as Supertall (984 feet) and Megatall (1,969 feet) have already been coined over the years and it won’t be surprising when a new term is used to describe buildings over 2500 feet. It will definitely take some time, as there is only one building today standing at that height, the Burj Khalifa.