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The Word

Light the gerbs!

The sparkling language of fireworks

By Erin McKean
July 10, 2011

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Last week, thousands gathered along the Charles River Esplanade to ooh and ahh at the more than 15,000 fireworks set off for Boston’s annual July 4 celebration. If you were there, you might have felt limited in your ability to describe just what you were watching, beyond “Look at that one!” and “Wow!” But there’s an entire vocabulary of terms used to describe fireworks, the jargon of the army of highly trained, exceedingly careful people employed to create, set up, and set off the light-and-noise shows we flock to each year.

Fireworks have been used in China from at least the 12th century on; how gunpowder - and the fireworks made with it - came to Europe is less clear. In both places, the earliest fireworks were used for both celebrations and war, so it makes sense that fireworks vocabulary overlaps with military language. Gunners were responsible not only for the mortars and shells used in battle, but also those filled instead with the stars and bursting charges of fireworks. (Fireworker was originally a term for an artillery officer; those who worked primarily to make what we consider fireworks were sometimes called pyrobolists.)

The general term for anything that turns into a burning aerial spectacle is star, but each gorgeous display has its own separate name, too, usually a metaphorical reference to the firework’s appearance. There are commonplace gerbs (pronounced like “gerbil” without the “il,” and derived from a French word meaning “a sheaf of wheat”) which produce upward showers of sparks (sometimes called fountains); pearls (stars of a single color); and rain (long-lasting stars that fall all the way to the ground). Palm trees look like their names, with trunks and drooping golden trails of stars (sometimes called willows); there are also peonies, dahlias, and chrysanthemums, which are increasingly intricate roundish shapes. (Like real flowers, they can have pistils: balls of stars inside other stars.) Stars that change color have sometimes been treated with dark fire, which gives off no light as it burns, allowing a different color layer of the star to ignite below it - sort of like an everlasting gobstopper.

Some fireworks are named for what they do. Go-getters and fish wriggle and squirm briefly through the air (and are self-propelled); comets leave trails of sparks; and crossettes are comets that split into multiple smaller comets, often in a cross shape. Girandolas, whirlwinds, and helicopters (sometimes called tourbillons or serpents) all spin in the sky. (Serpents shouldn’t be confused with black snakes, the always-disappointing consumer-grade fireworks that only result in sad, twisted piles of black ash.)

Behind the scenes, lances are the thin paper tubes used to make fireworks that look like writing or pictures. The practice of putting them together is called lancework, and a collection of precomposed fireworks is called a set piece. A salute is a loud noise without display (called a maroon in the United Kingdom) - not to be confused with the Silver Salute, an illegal firework similar to the original M-80. (With two whopping grams of flash powder, the original M-80 has been illegal in the United States since 1966. Modern M-80s have about one-fortieth their strength.)

Fireworks that don’t go off as expected have their own names, too. There’s the familiar dud, which has been conveniently (but erroneously) explained as a backronym of “dangerous unexploded device.” The Oxford English Dictionary has dud as “origin unknown,” possibly related to the dialect word dudman, “a scarecrow.” A flowerpot is a shell that bursts prematurely inside the mortar; a shell that bursts immediately after leaving the mortar, scattering its stars on the ground, is a muzzle break. Stars that don’t ignite are referred to as having been blown blind.

Some firework lingo warns of danger. When a shell’s fuse burns, but doesn’t explode, it’s a misfire, or possibly a hangfire: a fuse that burns too slowly or appears to go out, but could ignite at any time. A black shell or blind shell falls to the ground without bursting - but could be set off by sparks igniting the charge on impact. Duds, misfires, and smoldering debris are designed to land in the fallout zone. Spectators are carefully kept away from both the fallout zone and the shooting site.

Finally, beyond these descriptive terms, there’s the language related to the chemicals that are used to give fireworks their brilliant, glowing colors. These range from the colloquial (whistle mix, a combination of potassium and sodium benzoate which vibrates noisily as it burns) to the more scientific (magnalium, a blend of magnesium and aluminum).

It’s not surprising that fireworks would have their own large and comprehensive technical jargon. For one thing, they’re an art form - the high-culture doyen George Plimpton devoted an entire book (and a television special!) to fireworks and their artisan-engineers. But for another, when you’re dealing with something as dangerous and complicated as pyrotechnics, it makes sense to have more precise terms than “hand me that thingumbob over there, will you?”

Even for those of us content to watch, knowing the right terms enhances the sensory experience - think of the jargon of wine, or baseball. So the next time you’re staring up at another burst of colored light, see if you’re able to label it as a tourbillon or peony. It may make what you’re seeing even more beautiful.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com. E-mail her at erin@wordnik.com.