Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Unsinkable Vocabulary: Words for the Titanic Centennial

This weekend marks the one hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, so let's commemorate the occasion by looking back on some words and phrases that were particularly associated with the maritime disaster.

Titanic: We can start with the most obvious word, the name of the ocean liner itself, as it was dubbed by the British shipping company White Star Line. At the time it was built, the Titanic was the largest ship in the world, and the name matched its gargantuan size. The Titans, in Greek mythology, were a family of giants descended from Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (Heaven). Metaphorically, a Titan came to mean someone or something of enormous size and strength, and the -ic ending made it into an adjective. That -ic suffix was popular in naming ocean liners: most of the ships in the White Star fleet had it (see the list here), including several that rhymed with Titanic: Oceanic, Germanic, Romanic, and Britannic.

After the Titanic sank, the name obviously conjured up more inauspicious connotations. As the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, Titanic could be "used allusively or as a metaphor for a vast and supposedly indestructible organization fated to disaster." Soon after the disaster, the name became applied to the Titanic clause in some wills, designed to deal with the possibility of a husband and wife dying in the same catastrophe.

unsinkable: This adjective was attached to the Titanic in rueful irony after its demise. However, historians have debunked the popular notion that the Titanic was touted as unsinkable before its maiden voyage across the Atlantic. Richard Howells' book The Myth of the Titanic makes the case that the claim of the ship's "unsinkableness" was only ascribed in retrospect. The first time the claim was aired, according to Howells, was in The New York Times a day after the tragedy, on April 16, 1912. Philip A.S. Franklin, an executive in White Star Line's holding company, told the Times, "I thought her unsinkable, and I based my opinion on the best expert advice available. I do not understand it." Franklin's comment helped to plant the idea that White Star officials had hubristically called the Titanic unsinkable all along.

The word unsinkable was used in a more positive way to describe one of the Titanic survivors: the brassy American socialite Molly Brown. After her death, a Broadway musical and film adaptation were produced based on her life with the title "The Unsinkable Molly Brown."

and the band played on: Another well-known story about the Titanic is that the band continued playing on the deck even after it was clear that the ship was sinking, and all the band members went down with the ship. (The band was asked to play light tunes, but some claim their final song was the hymn "Nearer My God to Thee.") Because of this powerful image, the expression and the band played on likely evokes the sinking of the Titanic for most people. Indeed, along with its use as the title of the 1987 book by Randy Shilts about the emergence of the AIDS crisis, the phrase has also shown up in the titles of at least two recent books about the Titanic disaster.

It turns out, though, that and the band played on actually predates the Titanic. Eric Partridge listed it in his Dictionary of Catch Phrases with the meaning "things went on as usual." He identifies the source as a popular song from 1895, written by John F. Palmer, with the title "The Band Played On." Here's the chorus:

Casey would waltz with a strawberry blond,
And the Band played on,
He'd glide cross the floor with the girl he ador'd,
and the Band played on,
But his brain was so loaded it nearly exploded,
The poor girl would shake with alarm.
He'd ne'er leave the girl with the strawberry curls,
And the Band played on.

(Full lyrics here, sheet music here.)

rearranging/shuffling the deck chairs: While the band was playing, what were the passengers supposed to do to pass the time? Supposedly some of them played cards or exercised in the ship's gymnasium. They probably didn't busy themselves with rearranging or shuffling the deck chairs while the ship sank, but this expression nevertheless has achieved a great deal of popularity. It tends to be used in a comparative way: you can point to the futility of an action by likening it to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. As Michael Quinion recently told USA Today, the first known use occurs several decades after the Titanic sank. In December 1969, a Time magazine article about Catholic church reforms included this line: "One clergyman has been quoted as saying the numerous reforms taking place today are only 'shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.'"

The Titanic deck chairs (and the pointlessness of dealing with them) had actually been alluded to earlier in the year. In a January 1969 article in The New York Times, Elizabeth Carpenter, who had served as press secretary for Lady Bird Johnson, offered up this memory of her time at the White House: "All the new people want an office close to the President's. You should see them scramble. It's like fighting for a deck chair on the Titanic." Such is the power of the Titanic in our collective consciousness that we even imagine fanciful activities that might have happened during the disaster and build catchphrases out of those images.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday April 13th 2012, 12:49 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I doubt that the phrase "Women and children first!" is specifically associated with the Titanic; in fact, perhaps it's even apocryphal. Nonetheless, it's hard to imagine that disaster without that phrase being shouted.
Friday April 13th 2012, 1:08 AM
Comment by: Anonymous
Thanks, Mike -- I had considered adding "women and children first" to the list. It did seem to be the rule for the Titanic, at least, but not so much for other shipwrecks of the time, according to a recent study. (And it was only observed for the Titanic because the captain threatened to shoot any man who jumped the lifeboat queue.)
Friday April 13th 2012, 1:12 PM
Comment by: Loyd J.
Great article!
Wednesday April 18th 2012, 6:52 AM
Comment by: Luis M A. (Saltillo Mexico)
Democracy in Mexico, and its results, is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. While presidency candidates spend most of their time saying empty phrases, citizens do argue with empty arguments why their particular candidate is better. None of them will solve this nation profound problems: corruption, fraud, impunity, etc., because they are well rooted on each citizen's heart. Mostly all citizens expect someone else to solve their particular problems and do not act to contribute in solving them. So it doesn't matter what the results of the election process are, for us it will be as rearranging desk chairs on the Titanic.

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