Trebuchet: A stone-throwing engine of war. The word was imported from French into English in the 13th century, when the device was invented; the French verb trabucher meant “to overturn, overthrow,” from tra- (from Latin trans-, here expressing “displacement”) and Old French buc “trunk, bulk.” (Source: Online Etymology Dictionary.)
Drawing from Real World Physics Problems, which notes that “the payload could be thrown a far distance and do considerable damage, either by smashing down walls or striking the enemy while inside their stronghold.”
Trebuchets have been in the news lately because of their role in the antigovernment protests that have been taking place in Ukraine since November 2013. “The Battle for Ukraine Is Being Fought Using Ancient Military Tactics” read a January 22 headline in Business Insider. While protesters favoring European integration built a trebuchet in the capital city of Kiev (or Kyiv), government forces adopted an ancient Roman shielding tactic called the testudo, Latin for “tortoise.”
What’s the difference, you ask, between a trebuchet and a catapult? I looked it up for you. According to Jarod’s Forge, a history blog written by museum curator Jarod Kearny, a catapult is “any device that throws an object, although it commonly refers to the medieval siege weapon”; a catapult uses tension for its throwing force. Trebuchets “are a TYPE of catapult, using gravity (with a counterweight) or traction (men pulling down), to propel the arm and often employing a sling at the end of the arm for greater distance.”
The distinction is sometimes overlooked in coverage of the Ukrainian conflict. RT.com (formerly known as Russia Today) called the machine a catapult:
Puzzled protesters and journalists watched Monday as a group of masked people studied some plans, standing next to a pile of long wooden poles they had carried to a central Kiev area earlier.
It soon turned out the protesters were building a catapult – or, as some argued, a trebuchet.
And there was this:
— Robert Loerzel (@robertloerzel) January 23, 2014
Other words that frequently appear in coverage of the protests include Maidan (square, plaza), a word with cognates in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu; Berkut (“golden eagle”), the riot police; and Moskal (a derogatory term for a resident of Moscow). For more, see this Radio Free Europe glossary.
Previous Fritinancy coverage of antique weapons: Bayonets.