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The Mae West life jacket is one of the actress's enduring contributions to culture.

The Mae West life jacket

Maritime safety and early-Hollywood sex symbols may not seem to have much in common, but the etymology of the Mae West life jacket manages to connect these two very different worlds.

17 August is the birthday of Mae West, the American actress whose controversy and fame help to explain the many ways in which she contributed to the English language. A bit of a rule breaker, Mae West brought the shimmy to Broadway and was in constant trouble with the Hollywood censors for her risqué plays and films. But her impact extended beyond the borders of popular entertainment, and she has left a lasting legacy on the English language, appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in some of the earliest known quotations for a range of terms including ‘make love’ and ‘promo’.

She was as famous for her curves as she was for her raunchy films and plays. In fact, the first quotation for ‘curvaceous’ in the OED is a description of Mae West:

1936   Screen Book Mag. Feb. 61   The curvaceous lady [sc. Mae West] receives from Paramount just as many dollars per week for her scenario work as she receives for her acting.

So legendary, it seems, that they needed a new word to describe them, Mae West’s curves became a part of popular culture, and it’s no surprise that other objects were likened to them. The early life jackets issued during WWII gave the wearer a puffed-up chest and feminine figure, swiftly earning them the moniker ‘Mae West’.

Mae West

The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea also lists a type of spinnaker (a large three-cornered sail) nicknamed the ‘Mae West’ thanks to ‘the large swelling curve it took up when filled with wind’.

The Mae West life jacket is perhaps not quite as famous as the eponyms Wellington boot or sandwich, but it does show how the influence of celebrity can be wider reaching than first imagined. Mae West was a well- known figure (pardon the pun), and the term would have been as well understood as the ‘Rachel haircut’ or the ‘Mobot’.

To celebrate Mae West’s linguistic legacy, here are some of her most famous quotations taken from Oxford Essential Quotations, available on Oxford Reference:

I always say, keep a diary and some day it’ll keep you.
Every Day’s a Holiday (1937 film)

It’s not the men in my life that counts—it’s the life in my men.
I’m No Angel (1933 film)

‘Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!’
‘Goodness had nothing to do with it.’
Night After Night (1932 film)

Why don’t you come up sometime, and see me?
She Done Him Wrong (1933 film);

Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?
Joseph Weintraub Peel Me a Grape (1975)

I used to be Snow White…but I drifted.
Joseph Weintraub Peel Me a Grape (1975)


More information on Mae West can be found on American National Biography Online and Oxford Reference.

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