Crash! Boom! Pow! It’s that time of year again (much to the consternation of pets and phonophobes everywhere). However you might feel about the noise of pyrotechnics, you might still enjoy the language behind them. Ooh and aah at this brief history of firework words and names.
The birth of firework
While it’s believed that fireworks were invented in China back in the year 800 A.D., the word firework referring to the bright and noisy display we know today didn’t appear in the English language until 1580, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
Earlier and now obsolete definitions include a “combustible or explosive substance for use in war” (1528) and “work or activity involving fire” (1560). A later military slang sense (1916) from World Wars I and II is “the lights and sounds of shells, flares, anti-aircraft fire, etc., esp. when occurring at night.”
Another word for fireworks, pyrotechnics, is from 1729 (its root, pyrotechnic meaning “of or pertaining to fire,” is from 1704). As for the word firecracker, while it became popular in the U.S. in the early 19th century, again as per the OED, it first appeared in English way back in 1650 in a book by philosopher Henry More called Observations upon Anthroposophia theomagica, and Anima magica abscondita by Alazonamastix Philalethes: “The word σκιρτηδòν… seemes to allude to … fire-crackers and squibs rather then Cannons or Carbines.”
“You disgusting little Squib!”
In addition to being a non-magical person born into a magical family, a squib is a defective firecracker “that burns but does not explode.” The OED’s definition is slightly different — a “common species of firework, in which the burning of the composition is usually terminated by a slight explosion” — with its earliest citation from 1534. The dictionary also says the word might be imitative of the sound such a firecracker might make. A damp squib is something that disappoints or fails to meet expectations.
Take these fireworks for a spin
A girandole or girandola is a kind of spiraling firework. The word comes from the Italian girandola, a diminutive of giranda, “a revolving jet,” which ultimately comes from the Latin gyrare, “to turn round in a circle, revolve.” It also refers to a fancy candlestick holder.
The tourbillion is another spinning firework, specifically a “skyrocket with a spiral flight.” The word comes from the French tourbillon, says the OED, which means “whirlwind.” The English term might also refer to a whirlwind or vortex.
The catharine-wheel or Catherine wheel is a type of pinwheel firework. Rather than shoot up into the sky, it remains stationary and spins. The name seems to come from the heraldry meaning of “a wheel with sharp hooks projecting from the tire, supposed to represent the wheel upon which St. Catharine suffered martyrdom.”
When in Rome or Bengal
A Roman candle is a cylinder-shaped firework that, when shot up into the sky, throws off sparks and fire balls. It’s unclear where the name comes from although the OED says it was “perhaps originally with reference to the transmission of the firework technique from China to Europe via the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire.” Roman candle is also a derogatory term for someone who is Roman Catholic as well as slang for a parachute descent during which the parachute fails to open.
The Bengal light emits a steady and vibrant glow of blue, and is often used for signals. The name originated in the 18th century and might come from the Bengali region of South Asia, where one of the firework’s chief ingredients, saltpetre, came from at the time.
One of our favorite noisily named fireworks is the whizbang, which makes a whizzing name before making a bang or exploding. This name originated around 1881, says the OED, while during World War I, it gained the meaning of a small artillery shell.
A petard is more commonly a small bomb but is also a small, loud firecracker. The name might come from an Old French word meaning to fart. The peeoy is a firecracker of the homegrown variety: a small pyramid of damp gunpowder lit on top. Also called the spitting-devil, the word is Scottish and imitative in origin. Who knew a lit mound of gunpowder made a sound like peeoy?