Kite

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There are two principal strands of meaning for the noun kite, and various, largely informal, meanings of the verb, 'to kite'.

  • The original meaning is 'a bird of prey','a type of hawk'. Many species exist "in the family Accipitridae, particularly in subfamilies Milvinae, Elaninae, and Perninae" (Wikipedia, 2021). They characteristically have hooked bills, long wings, and a long, forked tail, and can be spotted by the twitching of their tails as they adjust to the air-currents as they glide, circle and hover looking for food. The red kite, Milvus milvus (also Milvus ictinus, M. regalis, M. vulgaris) is common in Europe, and has recently been re-introduced, with considerable success, to the British Isles. From virtual extinction in England in the twentieth century, the population of breeding pairs of red kites can be counted in the many hundreds, "nearly 2,000 breeding pairs in England" (The Guardian, 2020). Kites are essentially scavengers, feeding on carrion and other waste: they had a valuable role in the past in keeping cities clean. This included consuming the by-products of executions, as suggested by Shakespeare's Hamlet imagining the fate of his uncle's remains, if he had the will-power to kill him:
I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave's offal.
(Hamlet, II ii 606-7)
    • In the seventeenth century, 'a kite' was used figuratively for a rapacious person. This may have been echoed in the name of the demanding hop-steward Fred Kite (played by Peter Sellers) in the anti-union film I'm All Right Jack (1959)
  • The hovering of a red kite can be mimicked in a well-known children's toy, traditionally made of a light-weight wooden frame clothed with a paper or fabric cover which serves as an aerofoil. This was seriously studied in the late nineteenth century, when the Wright brothers learned enough about lift to construct their biplane. That experience encouraged the use of kites in the First World War, for lifting human observers to watch the effects of artillery, aerial photography, carrying wireless aerials to height, and acting as targets for anti-aircraft gun practice. They are now, in the twenty-first century, increasingly being used for pulling boats, surfers, landboards and skiers.
    • This is illustrated in the song sung by the father in the musical and film Mary Poppins, "Let's go fly a kite".
    • In the twentieth century, kite was usual slang for 'an aircraft'. This seems to have begun with the military biplanes of the First World War, whose 'light-weight wooden frames clothed with a fabric cover serving as an aerofoil' were very like the box-kites used to carry men into the air.
      • It was also used for the highest and lightest of fair-weather sails in a square-rigged ship, or equivalent sails in a fore-and-aft rigged yacht.
    • In commercial and financial contexts, a kite could be one of several disreputable things: a form of paper credit used to raise money; a 'bouncing' cheque; and, in a criminal context, an illicit communication with a prisoner; or a request, such as a begging letter to a charity, or an appeal to a doctor (for preferential treatment, etc).
      • These last led to the verbs 'to kite', meaning:
        • to write or pass a dud cheque, or otherwise try to raise credit (sometimes 'to fly a kite')
        • to smuggle messages into or out of prison
  • 'to fly a kite' also has the metaphoric meaning, from the early use of kites to make meteorological observations at altitude, "to try ‘how the wind blows’, i.e. in what direction affairs are tending"' (OED 1901); and so 'an hypothesis or suggestion made without a full proposal, to test opinion'.