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Particularly excellent fireworks

Particularly excellent fireworks

As anyone who has read on will know, Gandalf the Grey has bigger fish to fry (dragons to down, necromancers to neutralize, etc.), when he arrives at Bag End at the start of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, but in Hobbiton it is for his fireworks that the wizard is most fondly remembered. As Bilbo says:

I remember those! Old Took used to have them on Midsummer’s Eve. Splendid! They used to go up like great lilies and snapdragons and laburnums of fire and hang in the twilight all evening!

While dwarf-candles, elf-fountains, goblin-barkers, thunder-claps, and backarappers may never have caught on outside of Middle Earth, the rockets, squibs, sparklers, and crackers that also feature at Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday party in The Fellowship of the Ring all certainly have. They’re never more visible here in Britain than at this time of the year, when Diwali, Halloween, and Bonfire Night coincide to provide excuses to light up the darkening autumn skies with the brightest and most colourful (not to mention loudest) available.

With the smoke just clearing from this weekend’s bonfires and firework displays, now seems like a good time to ask how long we’ve been enjoying these little pieces of pyrotechnic magic, and how they’ve made an impact on the English language. Many fireworks are as linguistically obvious as the bright cascades of sparks and loud reports they produce; some, like crackers, sparklers, and bangers, tell us exactly what they do, while others – snakes and serpents, fountains, traffic lights – tell us what they are supposed to look like. Some, however, are a little coyer about their origins, which of course makes them all the more intriguing.

Fire! Fire! Water! Water! – Damp Squibs?

As an earlier Oxford Words blog post has pointed out, the word firework itself was first used to refer to weapons of war in the sixteenth century, but even before this, the use of gunpowder to produce aesthetic (rather than simply explosive) effects is visible in English texts.

The first fireworks in Britain are often said to have been those at the pageant for the coronation of King Henry VII’s queen, Elizabeth of York, in London on 25 November 1487, when spectators were treated to the sight of a barge carrying ‘a great red dragon spowting flamys of fyer into Temmys.’ As with the ‘puddings’ which are mentioned among other lighting effects for the Coventry cycle of mystery plays in 1527, it’s far from clear that we today would recognize these as fireworks. Only a few years later, though, a firework with a familiar name comes whizzing and banging into English culture. In John Heywood’s interlude The Play of Love, a staid debate is interrupted when the ‘Vice’ character:

. . .cometh in ronnyng sodenly aboute the place among the audyens with a hye copyn tank on his hed full of squybs fyred, cryeng, ‘Water, water, fyre, fyre, fyre, water, water, fyre,’ tyll the fyre in the squybs be spent.

What effect this sudden change of pace had on the audience (or indeed, on the poor actor wearing a high tank full of fireworks on his head) is sadly not recorded, but the squib – a short tube of gunpowder that burns with a hiss before eventually exploding – was here to stay. For much of the following century and beyond, squibs were the archetypal firework, and when rockets and crackers arrived in the second half of the sixteenth century, they are both first mentioned alongside squibs as elements of a typical firework display. The short, apparently onomatopoeic name seems to have caught the imagination of writers almost immediately, and the Oxford English Dictionary lists 20 further senses for the word, used to refer to satirical sketches, weak or ineffectual people, bodily functions (use your imagination), and even stalks of asparagus. Anything that looked like a small firework, or was intended to go with a bang – or more frequently, anything that hissed menacingly before failing to follow through with a satisfactory explosion – could be called a squib, and there are a range of unflattering verbs in slang use. In 1599 one anonymous writer told a rival:

Your bookes [are] but squibs, compounds of gunpowder and pisse.

These days, we’d probably just say that they are damp squibs, a more decorous nineteenth-century way of saying the same thing. While squibs are largely absent from the catalogues of modern firework suppliers, they’re still very much with us figuratively. As well as the foozledsquib kicks’ of American Football, Harry Potter’s midnight adventures at Hogwarts wouldn’t be the same without the constant threat of detection by Mr Filch, a non-magical child of magical parents, or – as they’re known in J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world – a squib. 

Wheels within Wheels: Catherine Wheels and Roman Candles

Squibs, like ripraps, flipflaps, peeoys, fizgigs, whizz-bangs, and most of the fireworks named above are among those that make their own names noisily or visibly apparent once you’ve lit the blue touchpaper and retired to a safe distance. This is true even if we’ve ceased to recognize squib as an imitative word. However, a handful of fireworks have names with deeper cultural roots and significances.

The Catherine wheel (which was always my favourite as a child) is the most obvious of these. As the name of a firework it is first recorded in English in a drily scientific description of its modus operandi from 1761:

A Catherine-wheel is made to turn round in a direction contrary to that in which the small rockets affixed to its periphery discharge themselves.

However, this name has its origins at least 1,000 years earlier in the legendary story of St Catherine of Alexandria, who is said to have died in the early fourth century. After the young princess Catherine had enraged Maxentius by successfully deploying all her erudition and eloquence in arguing the case for Christianity against a deputation of fifty of the greatest pagan philosophers of the day, the emperor – so the story goes – ordered her execution, commissioning for the purpose, in the words of one fifteenth-century retelling of the tale:

Four wheels of iron, set about with sharp nails, [designed so that] the two outer wheels should run against the two inner wheels with great violence, so that they would tear to pieces anything set between them.

Fortunately for Catherine, before this grisly instrument could be used, her prayers for deliverance were answered. The wheel was destroyed by an angel, and blown apart with such force that it killed 4,000 of the pagan spectators who had gathered to watch her execution. Although Catherine was beheaded soon afterwards, it was the wheel that came to represent her martyrdom, and so her sanctity. As one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages, she is often depicted holding a miniature version of the wheel, and as well as making her the patron saint of wheelwrights, spinners, and millers (among other crafts), it entered into a common stock of medieval iconography and religious and heraldic symbolism. The wheel itself features in all versions of the saint’s legend, but the first use in English of the name by which the firework is now known is a fifteenth-century reference to one of the pictorial signs used to distinguish houses and business premises in an age before widespread literacy, in a deed referring to a London tenement known as ‘le Catharine Whele’.

As someone interested in hagiography and martyrdom stories, I’ve often wondered if the name of another childhood favourite, the Roman candle, had similarly macabre origins in Tacitus’s story of the early Roman Christians condemned to be burned at the stake to serve as ‘nightly illumination’ in the Emperor Nero’s gardens. However, Roman candles (which, like Catherine wheels, are first referred to as fireworks in the eighteenth century) seem to have no such grisly associations. The OED suggests either that their name may be no more than a relic of the history of the transmission of pyrotechnic knowledge and techniques from the their origins in China via trade with the Byzantine (Roman) Empire and Italy, or that it is an example of Protestant anti-Catholicism associated with the yearly celebration of the foiling of Guy Fawkes’s Gunpowder Plot. That ‘Roman candle’ was used as a derogatory epithet for Roman Catholics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries makes this latter etymology all too believable. While the Roman candle has never been as linguistically fertile as the squib, it has acquired a grimly euphemistic currency among skydivers, to refer to a jump that fails (with obvious results) when a parachute doesn’t open.

These are just three firework names that have acquired extra significance in English over the 500 years in which we’ve been painting the sky with fire. These days it’s possible to order huge selections of fireworks that come with names almost outlandish enough for some of Gandalf’s creations. The question is, how many (if any) of them will last as long, or be as linguistically useful as the humble – and frequently damp – squib?

Writer’s update (7 November 2012):

A colleague has pointed that the backarapper isn’t only confined to Middle Earth. They’re described in a glossary of the Warwickshire dialect from 1896 as ‘a firework so folded that the charges in the folds detonate in succession’. You can read all about them, Tolkien’s other vocabulary, and his time on the Oxford English Dictionary, in Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner’s The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary (OUP, 2006).

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