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Phrases Associated with the Titanic

Even if one is not familiar with the all the details of the most famous maritime disaster of all time, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, a modern-day English speaker probably uses or is familiar with phrases that are associated with this legendary event. As its hull cracked and slipped into the dark, icy sea, the Titanic managed to toss overboard a number of phrases into the expansive ocean of the English language. The phrases are as vivid today as the events that unfolded on that cold April morning over a century ago:

And the band played on: to continue to do something bravely in the face of hostile or life-threatening conditions. The phrase first appears as the title to a song, “The Band Played On” written in 1895 by John Palmer. The song includes the refrain “And the band played on.” The phrase, as we know it, was redefined by the ill-fated maiden journey of the Titanic. Survivors of the ship witnessed one of the greatest acts of selflessness and courage when Wallace Hartley and his string ensemble played music on the upper deck soon after the Titanic struck the iceberg in order to calm the passengers. One of their selections, “Nearer My God to Thee” was truly prescient and for many, the last song they would ever hear.  Passengers scrambled their way to the lifeboats, rushing past the band that never wavered in its performance. Harold Bride, the ship’s junior wireless operator, recalled that the last song the musicians played was Francois Barthelemon’s “Autumn.” Eventually the mighty ship tilted and the waves swept the band into an icy tomb. Witnesses recall that Hartley’s last words were: “Gentlemen, I bid you farewell.”  Hartley’s body was recovered weeks later and was honored at a funeral with over 1,000 people attending and another 40,000 people lined up along the funeral procession. And the Band Played On was the title of a 1987 book written by Randy Shilts about the discovery of and spread of HIV and AIDS and the battle against government indifference. The book was adapted into a movie version by HBO in 1993. In 2011, Christopher Ward, grandson of one of the members of the Titanic orchestra, published And the Band Played On: The Enthralling Account of What Happened After the Titanic Sank focusing on the events after the Titanic sank.

Women and children first: if the lives of a group of people are at stake, then the lives of the women and children should be saved first, followed by the men. This act of chivalry was not new to the crew of the Titanic nor did that phrase originate that evening. The first recorded use is in the novel Harrington: A True Story of Love by William O’Connor written in 1860. The phrase was popularized, however, by the famous order issued by the captain of the Titanic, Edward Smith. Unfortunately for the men aboard the sinking ship, some of the officers misunderstood the order and prevented men from climbing aboard the lifeboats. The final casualties explain the cost of that misunderstanding: 74% of the women and 52% of the children were saved; however only 20% of the men survived.

The tip of the iceberg: something that appears small or trivial is, in fact, larger or more important. The phrase also has a temporal meaning: that something is just beginning, with something more or worse to follow. This is based on the natural observation that an iceberg floats in the ocean and only shows about 10% of its mass above sealevel, and the larger portion is hidden below.

Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic: a futile or pointless activity — because no matter how you rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, it will not prevent the inevitable — it will still sink. Often used as a very memorable and effective simile “[an action] … is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” Read the related post on the book, Futility, that predicted the sinking of the Titanic.

Like the Titanic headed for an iceberg: An unavoidable disaster, especially when happening to something that is supposedly indestructible. This simile is as vivid and as commonly used as the prior entry.

To buy a ticket on the Titanic: an action or effort is doomed; a person faces certain death as a result of a specific action. The phrase can imply that an action that might seem safe is actually very dangerous and will lead to a tragic consequence or death. Often used in the past tense: “The college student bought a ticket on the Titanic when he decided to climb a steep mountain without any training or assistance.”

I’m the king of the world! (Often misquoted as “I’m king of the world!”): a feeling of enormous elation, often celebrating success or achievement (or as in Dawson’s case — falling hopelessly in love). This is one of the most memorable lines from the 1997 movie, Titantic, directed by James Cameron. In a key scene Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCapprio) stands with his friend, hops onto the railing of the ship’s bow, and screams into the wind “I’m the king of the world!” Interestingly, that famous line was improvised on the set by Cameron who shot the scene nine times to capture the ideal composition and lighting. The movie went on to become the highest grossing film in history ($1.8 billion — only recently surpassed by another Cameron film, Avatar, that grossed $2.8 billion). Titanic also went on to win 11 Oscars at the 1998 Academy Awards. Upon winning for best director, Cameron exclaimed, “I’m king of the world” — omitting the word “the.” The film, running over three hours, was noted for its historical accuracy; however to appeal to a wider audience, Cameron wove a fictional love story (Jack and Rose) into the narrative. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s maiden voyage, the Titanic was released in 3D in early April.

 A Night to Remember: an eventful, often tragic, evening. The title of a book written by Walter Lord, published in 1955, considered by many to be the definitive source about the Titanic disaster. Lord was able to interview many of the survivors and distilled and consolidated many of the facts gleaned from the many articles and books by the survivors. The book was the basis for the film, A Night to Remember, released in 1958. Prior to Cameron’s Titanic that utilized more historical material, the early film was praised for its attention to detail. Since then, there have been numerous songs recorded with the same title.

The Unsinkable Titanic: unsinkable means unable to be sunk, but in the aftermath of the Titanic disaster, the phrase has taken on an ironic twist — almost as if the word unsinkable should be in quotation marks — meaning that the ship is indeed sinkable. Just the very use the word “unsinkable” immediately conjures up the famous ship. The phrase implies the shattering of man’s absolute faith in technology, invention, and science — a lesson learned by Icarus who didn’t know the limitations of his wings. As one minister of that time preached: “The Titanic, name and thing, will stand as a monument and warning to human presumption.” In a quick public relations maneuver soon after the headlines announced the tragedy at sea, White Star Lines emphatically declared that they had never stated that the Titanic was unsinkable. The sentence in one of their brochures, printed in 1910, read: “These two wonderful vessels [The Olympic and Titanic] are designed to be unsinkable.” In a classic case of backpedalling or spinning (recall Clinton’s “I smoked but did not inhale” line from his 1992 presidential race), White Star Lines claimed that the sentence really meant that the Titanic was designed to be unsinkable, but stopped short of declaring it unsinkable.

Read related posts: The Titanic by the Numbers, The Best Books on the Titanic, Futility (the book that predicted the Titanic disaster), The Titanic and the Costa Concordia

For further reading: A dictionary of catch phrases: British and American from the 16th Century to the Present Day by Eric Partridge, Taylor and Francis (1985). Adonis to Zorro: The Oxford Dictionary of Reference and Allusion by Andrew Delahunty and Sheila Dignen, Oxford University Press (2010).
http://www.phrases.org.uk. http://www.finebooksmagazine.com/press/2012/03/rr-auction-holds-titanic-auction.phtml?utm_source=fbnotes&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20120403 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki. http://home.earthlink.net/~llywarch/tnc02.html.htm. http://shine.yahoo.com/the-thread/the-thread-sits-down-the-the-cast-of-titanic.html

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