The first time I encountered the word “gondola” was as a 20 year old on her first visit to Venice. Gondolas, to me, were written in my memory as a flat, fancy, romantic (and expensive to ride) boat structures that traverse the canals of Venice, Italy.

But soon thereafter, on my first visit to Banff, Canada (Canadian Rockies) -- Gondolas was also the term for ski-like lifts (enclosed from the elements) to get from the bottom to the top of steep mountains (vice versa).

What is the etymology of “gondola”?

And how did it develop to reference two completely different transportation devices? One on water, the other on mountains? What is the relationship besides their obvious transportation connect?

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    Probably because "gondola" was "borrowed" from the boat, as a name for the baskets below early passenger-carrying hot-air balloons, and the early cable car baskets resembled balloon gondolas. – Hot Licks Feb 7 '17 at 23:40
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    In this 1839 Dictionnaire technologique, "gondole" is both defined as the well known Venitian boat and as the small basket suspended under a hot air balloon (what is quite similar to the ski lift cabin) – Graffito Feb 7 '17 at 23:47
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    English is full of words with multiple definitions. – NZKshatriya Feb 8 '17 at 3:46
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    Another useful question about a word with an interesting sequence of meanings, reduced to second-class citizenship on this site through enforcement of a fundamentally irrelevant technicality. – Sven Yargs Apr 6 '18 at 20:02

Some of the successive meanings given in the OED are:

  • 1a. " A light flat-bottomed boat or skiff in use on the Venetian canals, having a cabin amidships and rising to a sharp point at either end; it is usually propelled by one man at the stern with a single oar."

    1. U.S. A large flat-bottomed river boat of light build; a lighter; used also as a gun-boat.
  • 4a. "= gondola-car n. U.S.", which is glossed as "U.S. a railway car having a platform body with low sides."

  • 4b. "An elongated car attached to the under side of a dirigible balloon or airship. [German, Dutch gondel.] Also transf., applied to a structure that resembles such a car in its purpose and mode of attachment."

  • 4c. "The car attached to a ski-lift. Also gondola lift."

So the crucial step appears to be the cabin of an airship (which is long and low), and then a cabin suspended from something. This kind of semantic drift is very common.


The Venetian gondola appears (in italics, signifying a recently foreign, not altogether naturalized word) in Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (1756):

GONDOLA. s. {gondole, French.} A boat much used in Venice ; a small boat.

The next definition to arrive appears in Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1847) which lists it after a lengthy entry describing the Venetian gondola:

GONDOLA, n. ... 2. A flat-bottomed boat for carrying produce &c. United States.

Merriam-Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language (1864) adds a third definition:

GONDOLA, n. ... 3. A long platform car, either having no sides or with very low sides, used on railways.

Meriam-Webster's Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, third edition (1916) drops the platform car definition (although that meaning returns in subsequent editions of the Collegiate Dictionary series) and adds a new third definition:

gondola, n. ... 3. A elongated car attached to the underside of a dirigible balloon.

Then, Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (1963) lists a profusion of new definitions:

gondola n ... [4] b : an often spherical airtight enclosure suspended from a balloon for carrying passengers or instruments 5 : an upholstered chair whose back curves forward at both sides to form the arms 6 : a fixture approachable from all sides used in self-service retail stores to display merchandise 7 : a motortruck or trailer having a large hopper-shaped container for transporting mixed concrete

In the Seventh Collegiate definition 4(a) is the "elongated car attached to the underside of an airship" meaning that had debuted with a very similar wording almost half a century earlier. But even the Seventh Collegiate doesn't mention the "ski-lift car" meaning of the term. That finally appears as new definition 4(c) in Webster's New Collegiate [eighth edition] (1973):

gondola n ... [4] c : an enclosed car suspended from a cable and used for transporting passengers; esp : one used as a ski lift

So in Merriam-Webster's telling, the closest etymological ancestors of the ski-lift-enclosed-car gondola was the airtight-enclosure-suspended-from-a-balloon gondola, and before that the elongated-car-attached-to-the-underside-of-a-dirigible gondola. In all likelihood, the elongated car of the dirigible reminded people of the railway-platform-car gondola, which in turn resembled the U.S.-produce-carrying gondola, which owed its name to the original Venetian gondola.

Now if only we could figure out how the approachable-from-all-sides-merchandise-displaying-fixture gondola got its name, we could rest easy.

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