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According to the Google Ngram Viewer (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Ngram_Viewer) the English word "airplane" was practically unused before the year 1900. Given that paper is credited with having been invented over two centuries before what we know as the airplane; any paper-based flyers throughout the ages would have had to be called something other than "paper airplanes".

Is there documented evidence of the use of alternative names, in any language, and what were they?

Note: By paper airplane I'm referring to any invention mostly or exclusively made of flat paper (parchment, etc.) that when thrown stays aloft for longer than the same paper compressed into a ball would.

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    Could use a clarification: Do you know that they existed before airplanes did? The text in the question implies that you do. If so, please edit in a reference for how you know that.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 19 at 19:17
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    Paper darts perhaps?
    – user558840
    Mar 19 at 20:42
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    (Also, for the record, paper was invented two millennia before the airplane.) Mar 19 at 23:39
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    @T.E.D. I've only seen anecdotal evidence that paper flyers existed before airplanes (such as Wiki as Gort points out). But IMO it seems reasonable to assume that someone over the many centuries would've toyed with paper in that way.
    – dhinson919
    Mar 20 at 4:30
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    @GorttheRobot - From what a I saw looking this up, the Chinese were likely making something similar soon after they invented the paper. But that doesn't change the fact that the question could use an edit on this subject, with links.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 20 at 20:42
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They were called paper darts in the 19th century, as evidenced in this article, which contains many detailed references going back as far as 1864, and many illustrations

In fact, it appears that they continued to be called "paper darts" until the mid-20th century, when the terminology switched largely because airplanes had come to more closely resemble them. Early airplanes looked nothing like paper darts.

I should add that the terminological tide may have turned definitively when The Great International Paper Airplane Book appeared in 1967. It contained complex and fancy paper airplane designs (including a paper helicopter), and the authors used "paper dart" as a term of opprobrium for the familiar, boring design that every child learns.

cover photo from thriftbooks.com

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Short Answer

(Paper) Dart and (Paper) Arrow

These terms were used from at least the 1860s. However, not all of these designs were what we would today recognize and call 'paper planes'. Some clearly looked like the darts thrown at dart boards.


Details

There are 19th century references (with images resembling paper planes) to

  • 'paper dart' and 'arrow' (UK & US sources)

  • 'ein Wurfpfeil' (a dart) (German source)

  • 'flèche de papier' (paper arrow) (French source)


David Mitchell, a paperfolding designer, seems to have researched this in some detail on his webpage The Paper Dart / The Arrow.

The image below, from a book published in 1864 but with foreword dated May 1863, is from Hermann Wagner's 'Spielbuch fur Knaben'. In German, it was called simply "Ein Warfpfeil" [sic] (a dart).

enter image description here

The earliest instructions Mitchell found for making what we now know as a paper plane were in the 1864 edition of Every Little Boy's Book under the heading 'PAPER DART' and with a very small picture.

In French, it was called "La flèche de papier" (the paper arrow). The image below appeared in 1880 in T de Moulidars' 'Un million de jeux et de plaisirs'.

enter image description here

'Arrow' was also used in the New York publication 'The Kindergarten Guide' from circa. 1882 with the following diagram:

enter image description here


It's important to note that not every 19th century reference to a 'paper dart' or 'arrow' refers to something resembling a paper plane. This is clear from the evidence presented on Paper Darts and Flights where there are several illustrations which are clearly darts (sometimes including a pin in the tip), not planes. See, for example, this one:

enter image description here

Image taken from The Popular Recreator, 1873

Also, the circa. 1786 reference to a paper dart (cited in this reddit post) by the English actor Charles Mathews is inconclusive as to exactly what the then circa. 10-year-old actor-to-be was actually throwing:

This was about the year 1786. Bishop, the head master, wore a huge powdered wig, larger than any other bishop's wig. It invited invasion, and we shot paper darts with such singular dexterity into the protruding bush behind, that it looked like "a fretful porcupine."

Source: Mrs. Mathews, 'The Life and Correspondence of Charles Mathews' (1860)

Interestingly, on China, David Mitchell states:

It is commonly stated that paper planes originated in China over 2000 years ago as a development of paper kites. I can find no evidence whatsoever to back up this assertion. It probably arises due to a confusion between paper planes and paper kites.


All images taken from various pages on David Mitchell's 'Origami Heaven' website.

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    In German it's "Wurfpfeil", in some old fonts the "a" and "u" look very similar, and "Warfpfeil" is not a word.
    – knabar
    Mar 20 at 10:52
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    @knabar Noted, thanks. I'll edit with [sic] as "a" is used in the source. Mar 20 at 10:54
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    The french picture shows "La fleche de papier" (and maybe first e is è?) , not "la fleche du papier". But thanks for the laugh as it remembered me of Dexter's "omelette du fromage" :-) Mar 20 at 23:15
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    @MichaëlPolla Thanks. Fixed the typo. Mar 21 at 0:20
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    Great answers to a great question. I have long wondered about this, the ability to make paper airplanes obviously preceded actual airplanes by quite a bit but I could never figure what they would be called (obviously not paper airplanes) and thus never found it on google. But they are so simple that it seemed certain that someone somewhere must have worked it out, and once any schoolchild saw it demonstrated, clearly its in-class prank value would insure its illicit perpetuation forever. The Bishop's quote above was, to me, a hilarious affirmation of my reasoning. Mar 23 at 13:19
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"Paper darts" were the best way to have fun in the 1860s. As early as 1864, kids were flying "paper darts" that looked like what we call "paper airplanes" today.They were called paper darts because they looked and acted like "darts" to a degree of thinking. diagram for assembly of paper dart; block of text describing paper darts

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    Please cite image source.
    – MCW
    Mar 22 at 17:46
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    @MarkC.Wallace The source appears to be the same as the one in Lars' answer, T de Moulidars' 'Un million de jeux et de plaisirs', only including more of the text around the image, and apparently an English translation from the original French. Mar 22 at 18:12
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    Does this answer add anything not in the other two earlier answers? Mar 23 at 2:45
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Paper darts or paper birds or paper arrows...

https://www.google.com/books/edition/Home_Study_for_Machinists_Steam_Engineer/BIs7AQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=folded%20

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  • Link only answer is likely to be downvoted and deleted; see advice on link only answers. I recommend that you summarize the essential elements of the link and explain how it is different from other existing answers.
    – MCW
    Mar 24 at 20:07

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