slingshot and catapult

It's time to start catching up on the trickle of queries that seems to have created a flood in my inbox. James in western Massachusetts writes:
My source is some eighty years out of date, but I've been reading a British author who used "catapult" for what (today) an American would call a "slingshot." Is this still the case, and does this make the machines of war seem more puny, or the child's toy more fearsome?
Catapult continues to be used in BrE for things like this toy to the right, which is advertised for sale on the English Heritage website. It's also used, as in AmE, for big machines used to shoot boulders over castle walls. Slingshot, originally AmE (goes back to 1849, at least), doesn't refer to the machines of war, just the toy thing and extended senses relating to motion. These days, slingshot is understood and used in the UK as well as catapult, but is often reserved in BrE for the kind of weapon that is otherwise called a sling.  The OED quotes an occurrence in The Economist in 1966, so it seems to be fairly recent British usage.

I also found a spoof "Edwardian" on-line magazine called The Slingshot [no longer available]--does the editor reali{s/z}e that even his title is an anachronism? In-joke or sloppiness? One can only guess.


  1. It could be, perhaps, that the title of the magazine refers not to a catapult, but to the shot from a sling, of the kind David used to kill Goliath, so not necessarily an anachronism?

  2. Admittedly I'm no longer of catapult/slingshot age (I'm 27), but to my ears catapult is far preferable. Although I understand slingshot (probably from Bart Simpson), the more immediate connotations are the one Howard suggests and the gravitational sort used in Star Trek 4 or the Pluto probe.

  3. When I was young, I think slingshot would have been an odd choice or word, catapult would have been acceptable but maybe a little formal. I think we really called them "gat"s. Maybe it was with two ts - I've never seen it written!

  4. This is what I think of when I hear 'sling shot' (even though I know its a sling)

  5. Dang!!!

  6. Better Half generally agrees with you all--he wasn't around to consult when I was writing this yesterday.

  7. I don't think that I have ever heard BrE speaker use 'slingshot' to describe the small piece of forked wood and elastic combination. Even the device used overarm to accelerate a projectile - usually featured in pictures of David and Goliath - would be a sling, not a slingshot

  8. In technical terminology, a sling shot is shot thrown by a sling. Historically, it was often lead and rather spindle-shaped. By the available accounts, it was as lethal as an arrow on impact, and about as accurate.

    In AmE, a slingshot also includes rather more high-tech examples such as the Wrist-Rocket. It seems likely that these are controlled in the UK (though I have no evidence for that). They're certainly at least as dangerous as air rifles.

  9. I'm no lexicographer, but the little research I've done just now leads me to believe that catapult can be considered a supercategory of weapons that propel things. If the Wikipedia entry is to be believed, catapults were originally dart throwers (presumably with pretty big darts...).

    Under the category of catapults, you find ballistas (rock throwers), trebuchets (catapults that used gravity instead of tension), and, if I may be so bold as to add it, slingshots.

    In a related note, I heard on the radio the other day about an attempt to break the world record for catapulting a human into the air. As the news article described it, they had actually created a giant slingshot with which they would catapult the brave idiot into the sky.

  10. I think you're right about the family tree of catapults, Andyman, but still it's a rare AmE speaker who would call a slingshot a catapult. So, AmE has two words, and the more specific one "blocks" (actually a technical term) the use of the more general one in the description of the more specific thing. BrE doesn't have the more specific word as a part of the active vocab, and so the more general term is used for the specific (fork and a band) type of catapult.

  11. I've never known it to be anything besides a slingshot. I'm British and I never say catapult. Seems outdated and too old for me so ���� slingshot is just how I've always known it

  12. BrE (Scot, 60+). In my Scottish dialect, it was slUNgs, or even a pair of slungs, and always used as a plural.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)