When I hear the word barnstorm, I always see the same picture in my mind: a brightly painted biplane flying low over a sunny stretch of farmland. It turns out, however, that the word predates stunt pilots and flying machines. Merriam-Webster traces the word to 1883, twenty years before the Wright Brothers truly got airborne.

Originally, barnstorm was used in talking about theater troupes who toured 19th-century rural America. I’m no etymologist, but it seems no great stretch to imagine that these amateur thespians staged their performances in local barns. Later, when itinerant politicians and promoters crossed the countryside in similar fashion, the term came to be applied to them as well.

For me, however, the word evokes the county fairs and carnivals of yesteryear, all summer days and azure skies. The heyday of barnstorming was brief: just a few years in the 1920s, before high-profile accidents and safety regulations grounded most daredevil pilots. But its impression on the nation’s psyche remains.

And why not? We’re talking the stuff of classic Americana: plenty of danger and skill, mixed with a bit of foolhardiness, served up with lots of noise and speed, all to entertain the masses. Why, barnstorming might just have been the Avatar of its day.

Even the word itself is a feat of engineering, almost too unwieldy for flight — thanks to seven heavy consonants, carefully balanced between two syllables. And that’s exactly why I love barnstorm: for its delicious heft in the mouth, its Anglo-Saxon-ness. (Both barn and storm, as you might guess, have roots all the way back in Old English.)

Watch carefully, though, as those two open vowels, like propellers, not only get the thing off the ground, but send it soaring with surprising grace. Sure, I enjoy roller coasters and action flicks as much as the next guy. But a word like barnstorm? That’s enough to really take my breath away.

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