My wife and I are continuing to read Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End (see this post), and in the first chapter of the third novel, A Man Could Stand Up—, I ran across a word unfamiliar to me in this sense:
But of course that had been ten minutes ago…Before the maroons or the sirens, whichever it had been, had sounded…[…]
Intense heat possessed Valentine Wannop. She imagined indeed her eyes flashing. Was this the moment?
She didn’t even know whether what they had let off had been maroons or aircraft guns or sirens.
It occurs several more times, and clearly meant some kind of noisemaker, but it wasn’t in either Merriam-Webster or AHD; of course, the OED (entry updated 2000) has it, s.v. maroon 1 “A kind of large chestnut.” The second sense is:
2. a. A firework designed to make a single loud report like the noise of a cannon (often with a bright flash of light), used esp. as a warning or signal.
Used as an air-raid warning, etc., in the First World War (1914–18).
1749 G. Ruggieri Descr. Machine for Fireworks 13, 5000 Marrons in Battery, which continue firing to the End of the Fireworks.
1773 Rivington’s N.Y. Gazetteer 15 July 3/3 (advt.) In the Bowery-Lane, Will be exhibited a grand and curious Fire-Work… A Piece representing a Wind-Mill. Two Perpendicular Wheels with Maroons.
1818 Handbill July in Pall Mall Gaz. (1885) 5 Nov. 4/2 A battery of maroons, or imitation cannon.
1840 T. Hood Miss Kilmansegg i, in New Monthly Mag. 60 87 To have seen the maroons, And the whirling moons.
1884 St. James’s Gaz. 13 June 10/2 The display last night included signal maroons..rockets, and shells.
1918 Flying 6 Feb. 90/1 Clearly, the authorities ought to have posted notices..explaining that the maroons are warnings to take cover.
1918 Daily Mirror 12 Nov. 2/1 London went wild with delight when the great news came through yesterday… Bells burst into joyful chimes, maroons were exploded, bands paraded the streets, and London gave itself up wholeheartedly to rejoicing.
1934 E. Wharton Backward Glance xiii. 358 Four years of war had inured Parisians to every kind of noise connected with air-raids, from the boom of warning maroons to the smashing roar of the bombs.
1957 J. Kirkup Only Child xiii. 177, I would go to bed, to be awakened at midnight by bells and maroons and hooting sirens and laughter and shouting and singing in the streets.
1985 Lifeboat Winter 258/3 The deputy launching authority for Alderney lifeboat was contacted and..maroons were fired.
The etymology, after saying that the word is from Middle French marron chestnut and its etymon Italian marrone (“further etymology uncertain”), adds: “French marron is attested in sense A. 2 from 1752; Trésor de la Langue Française explains that the firework makes the noise of a chestnut bursting in the fire.” I’m curious as to whether this sense is still current outside the US (where it seems to be unknown).
Side note: the first sentence of the novel, “Slowly, amidst intolerable noises from, on the one hand, the street and, on the other, from the large and voluminously echoing playground, the depths of the telephone began, for Valentine, to assume an aspect that, years ago, it had used to have — of being a part of the supernatural paraphernalia of inscrutable Destiny,” reminds me of a sentence from Lolita: “With people in movies I seem to share the services of the machina telephonica and its sudden god.” Nabokov, of course, is playing on deus ex machina; I don’t know if there are other examples of the supernatural/divine telephone trope.