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  • Adrian J. Boas

On the Appropriateness of Names


Morgan Library, ms. M.638, fol. 23v

Where I grew up we called those tiny glass projectiles "cats’ eyes", "American alleys" and "tom bowlers". Elsewhere they went by many other names - boulders, thumpers, bonkers, mashers, peawees, poppers, shooters, smashers, bumboozers, godfathers, grandfathers, taws, bottle washers, king-kongs, hoggers, and toe breakers. They were not dangerous. No one died from them, hardly ever was anyone injured (I don't recall hearing of anyone's toe being broken), and they were as inoffensive as were their names. Perhaps, when adults produced much larger projectiles, the type that could destroy and kill, and the machines that projected them, they remembered those inoffensive names from their childhood, and perhaps they wished to believe that by giving these terrifying weapons inoffensive names, they were doing something that was not as abhorrent as they knew that it indeed was.


“Big Bertha” sounds rather like a voluptuous aunt, but it was in fact the name given to the siege howitzer used by the Imperial German Army during the First World War, and “Heavy Gustav” (an overweight German uncle?) was that of a railway cannon, the largest gun ever built, which was over 12 metres high and 47 metres long, and was indeed heavy, weighing almost 1,350 tonnes. Robert Serber, the physicist behind the development of the atom bombs, gave inoffensive names to the first two that he designed “Thin Man” and “Fat Man”, taking the names from Dashiell Hammett’s novels. In the end, the bomb that was dropped over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and that caused vast destruction, the deaths of an estimated 202,118 human beings and the maiming of countless others, was given an even more innocuous name - “Little Boy”. Fat Man was dropped three days later over Nagasaki and caused up to 80,000 additional deaths.


This tradition of applying inoffensive names to extremely offensive objects goes back to much earlier times. In the Roman period animal names were applied to various items used in siege warfare, and in the Middle Ages we still read about the use of cats, crows and rams. But in naming their stone-throwing machines, which had become progressively more effective and consequently were more and more frequently employed, the Muslims and Christians occasionally chose names which were perhaps more representative of their nature than were names like Big Bertha or Little Boy. At the siege of Thessaloniki in 1185 the attacking Normans used several trebuchets*, most of them fairly small, and two large ones. One of the small machines was named "Daughter of the Earthquake", a suggestive name indeed, though one of the two larger ones was simply called "Mother" or "Old Woman" which sounds rather less threatening. But perhaps "Mother" might mean mother of the daughter of an earthquake, in which case "Mother" is synonymous with "Earthquake", and "Old Woman" perhaps meant an old woman with clout (it was the name used by Anwar Sadat when referring to Golda Meir). It is sometimes hard to comprehend the choice of some of these names. One of the trebuchets used by Saladin in 1183 was mysteriously called "the Examiner", which sounds more like a newspaper than a weapon (pen mightier than the sword?). More appropriately, at the siege at Nicaea in 1184, Andronikos I Komnenos used a machine optimistically named "Helepoleis" ("City Taker") and at Acre during the Third Crusade, Philip of France employed a trebuchet very appropriately named "Bad Neighbour", and the Muslims countered with one called "Bad Cousin".


Trebuchets were used principally for throwing stone projectiles, and the capabilities of these machines and their effectiveness in destroying defences are still much debated. But occasionally they threw other things – the heads of captured enemies, which might not have caused any physical damage but would certainly have had a demoralizing effect, or animals' carcasses - an early form of biological warfare, or Greek Fire, a weapon that was highly inflammable and extremely difficult to extinguish. The latter was quite terrifying when thrown by the barrel-load, as it is described as having been used by the Muslims at Damietta during the crusade of Louis IX:


...it came frontwise as large as a barrel of verjuice, and the tail of fire that issued from it was as large as a large lance. The noise it made in coming was like heaven's thunder. It had the seeming of a dragon flying through the air. It gave so great a light... that one saw a clearly throughout the camp as if it had been day.**


With a warhead like that, even names like "Bad Neighbour" or "Bad Cousin" seem rather mild.



* The trebuchet is a machine of the type seen in the illustration above, formed of a large beam to which a sling with a stone projectile is attached. To the other end were ropes pulled manually, but these were later replaced with a heavy counterweight which made for much greater force and caused much more damage.

** John of Joinville, Chronicle of the Crusade of St. Louis, trans. F. Marzials, London and Toronto, 1921, p. 186.

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