Anybody here know what the post title means? You’re wondering how you can iron a shirt with a cold iron, right? Boy, are you barking up the wrong tree. Here’s a representative quote: “The Brooklyn Paper has an article on a setback in a Red Hook blogger’s quest to reduce port emissions through cold ironing.” Here’s another: “The Juneau cold ironing system provides both electric power and steam.” (I know, steam from a cold iron?? How does that work?) I’ll let you think about it for a minute and try guessing.

…OK, time’s up. The Wikipedia article, which is where I cured my own ignorance after running into the phrase and experiencing utter befuddlement, explains it well: it is “the process of providing shore-side electrical power to a ship at berth while its main and auxiliary engines are turned off. Cold ironing permits emergency equipment, refrigeration, cooling, heating, lighting, etc. to receive continuous electrical power while the ship loads or unloads its cargo.” And why is it called that? That’s the beauty part: “Cold ironing is a shipping industry term that first came into use when all ships had coal fired iron clad engines. When a ship would tie up at port there was no need to continue to feed the fire and the iron engines would literally cool down eventually going completely cold, hence the term ‘cold ironing’.” Most enjoyable etymology I’ve seen in a while.


  1. My favorite etymology right now: toffee and taffy were originally the same word, taffy being the Northern English and Scots form, and in fact they start out as the same thing, but toffee is poured into a mold and then broken up when cold, whereas taffy is, as all American children ought to know, pulled.
    My favorite etymology I made up: toff ‘aristocrat’ is short for toffee-nose ‘snob’. The OED thinks otherwise, but pooh-pooh to them.

  2. I prefer Extreme Ironing.

  3. Siganus Sutor says

    The expression “ironing” also exists in the field of geotechnical engineering. And since there is no heat involved in the process, I suppose it is also a kind of cold ironing.
    Dynamic Compaction Tampers
    “We also own several tampers specifically designed for near-surface compaction, often called “ironing.” Because their static cont[r]act pressure is o[n] the order of 500 ps[f] or less, these weights compact the near-surface soils effectively, without significant penetration.”

  4. Trond Engen says

    In my long gone days of service in the Norwegian Coast Guard we used the straightforward compound ‘landstrøm’ “land electricity” (“lit. “land current”). I see that this is still the term in use.
    We always connected to ‘landstrøm’ as the first thing after, er, mooring (a new English word to me), and for twenty years I’ve just assumed that this is what ships do. I can still feel that sweet sensation of the moment when we had connected to land, the lights blinked briefly and came back with a sharper and more even glow, and the sound and the vibrations of the engines came to a stop.

  5. clodhopper says

    There I be blowed, I ‘tort’ it meant that you put your long pants into trouser press and wait out the night snoring, thus no heat required.

  6. clodhopper says

    taffy; another myth gone, I tort it was toffee using salty water from the river Taff

  7. Allow me to mention in the context of a contradictio in adjecto the phrase inland marine, an insurance term covering things which are being conveyed over land, nowadays usually in trucks, but also potentially on barges or such non-marine vessels.

  8. Yes, interesting.
    Minor possible correction ?
    I doubt the engines were “iron-clad”, more probably “iron” ie made of iron ? Iron-clad is associated with armoured ship hulls I believe.

  9. You’re probably right; if you’re sure enough, go ahead and correct the Wikipedia article.

  10. Taffy is good and toffee is also good. If someone understand the pronounced word than its fine because its just language and language means if someone can understand you that’s called language.

  11. Spammer good for a laugh here.

  12. John Cowan says
  13. That poem went in a disappointing direction.

  14. John Cowan says

    Oh, I don’t agree. I think it’s perfect in its way.

  15. There’s a Dylan song, Cold Irons Bound. It doesn’t appear to have anything to do with boats, though.

  16. John Cowan says

    David L: No URL in that link.

    Wikipedia says: “Cold iron is historically believed to repel, contain, or harm ghosts, fairies, witches, and other malevolent supernatural creatures.” Modern fantasy writers have made this into a trope: in Poul Anderson’s Operation Chaos, there is a reference to “degauss[ing] the influences that had held paranatural forces in check since the Bronze Age ended.” The narrator of the book, an American werewolf named Steven Matuchek, wonders about his perhaps-imaginary listeners in worlds parallel to his: “Have you had an Einstein? And if you did, what did he think about after his early papers on Brownian motion and special relativity?” We are also told that internal-combustion automobiles became disused soon after 1900, “just before the first broomstick flights” (by the 1940, Ford and Chevrolet broomsticks are common). Putting all that together, it suggests that rather than working on general relativity and unified field theory, Einstein solved the problem of cold iron, making the highly technological Goetic Age possible.

    (There is a sequel, Operation Luna, which links to Midsummer Tempest, set in an alternative 17C with trains where Shakespeare’s plays are historical truth, and from there to Three Hearts and Three Lions.)

  17. I am not sure how far it goes back, but there is a frequent misunderstanding that the “cold iron” that is supposed to be useful against supernatural baddies actually means cold-forged iron. That would mean iron shaped without heat forging, which is absurdly difficult to accomplish.

  18. Stu Clayton says

    Cold irony was once an effective defense against deplorables. It is a weaker form of malleus maleficarum.

  19. Stu Clayton says

    I assume, but haven’t been able to verify, that a witch-proof 15C hammer head might well be made of iron or steel, rather than stone.

  20. For the first year of my life my mother trimmed my fingernails with her teeth, believing that if she used iron on them it’d make me a thief.

  21. From wiki, “Francis Grose’s 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue defines cold iron as “A sword, or any other weapon for cutting or stabbing.” This usage often appears as “cold steel” in modern parlance.”

    I think we say “shore current” rather than “land current” for ‘landstrøm’ – I’m not sure if there is a word for the reverse process, of powering facilities on land using electricity generated on board ship, but it has happened. A very cold winter and union intransigence in 1947 meant that the UK faced a crippling shortage of coal; to keep naval dockyards running, cables were run from diesel-electric submarines, which kept their engines turning constantly. (Wearing out a lot of the sub fleet prematurely, but there you go.)

  22. John Cowan says

    cold-forged iron

    Actually impression-die forging, which is a kind of cold (or rather room temperature) iron working, is a common process. Iron is placed into an appropriately shaped die and hit with a hammer, which forces the iron to conform to the shape of the die, which serves as a mold. It’s common to use a large number of relatively light blows to avoid cracking.

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