Q From Nick Redmond: I recently heard on BBC Radio 2 that landing came from the days when people were transported in carriages and then carried up the stairs and deposited on the landing in the house. I have my doubts. Could you help?
A You are wise to doubt this. Either the speaker had his tongue firmly — though necessarily figuratively — in his cheek or he was making a wild guess.
This isn’t to say it never happened. Sick or disabled individuals must have been carried up and down stairs but it could hardly have been commonplace. I suspect there’s a confused memory here of ladies in previous centuries being carried from their carriages to the door to save their shoes and clothes from the mud and muck of the street.
Landing started out in the seventeenth century as the obvious word to use for a place where one alights from a boat — where one comes to land. It was applied for the first time to the action of bringing an aerial vehicle to ground when the Italian balloonist Vincenzo Lunardi made a famous ascent from the Honourable Artillery Company’s Artillery Ground in London on 15 September 1784. He wrote that year in his Account of the First Aërial Voyage in England, “My principal care was to avoid a violent concussion at landing.”
Coincidentally, or even perhaps not, the Oxford English Dictionary has its first example of the word in your sense in an architectural treatise published the year after. It’s an extension of the same idea. Having ascended the stairs, the landing is where you “come to ground” and perhaps may rest before attempting the next flight.
A contributing factor may be that landing places in tidal waters were usually built on several levels like steps to cope with changing water levels. Landing places would often also have steps up to the quayside or ground level. These associations may have helped lend the name to a flat area at the top of a staircase.
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