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.


  1. Ralph Sydenham says

    A ‘maroon’ was used until recently to tell members of the Llandudno lifeboat that they were needed to put to sea.I have never seen it being launched,but it exploded just like a firework rocket,and we referred to the sound,as,well ‘the maroon’.I believe it has now been replaced by an electronic pager.

  2. It makes me think of the beginning of The Matrix. The telephone and its ringing had a supernatural flavor there.

  3. There’s a trope in Ulysses in which an umbilical cord is imagined to be the end of a telephone line leading into the past, ultimately to ‘Edenville.’

  4. That opening sentence has a broken parallelism. Delete the second ‘from’, move the first after “on the one hand”, or move the second before “on the other”.

  5. The opening of Vollmann’s Europe Central:

    A squat black telephone, I mean an octopus, the god of our Signal Corps, owns a recess in Berlin (more probably Moscow, which one German general has named the core of the enemy’s whole being). Somewhere between steel reefs, a wire wrapped in gutta-percha vibrates […] The telephone gloats: Liberating advance . . . shock armies . . . ratio of mechanised forces.

  6. Have you reached the moment when coal is referred to as a “comestible”? That was (I think) my biggest language surprise (I blogged about a few of the words when the TV show was imminent).

  7. No, I haven’t; thanks for alerting me!

  8. I can’t remember if he’s put it into so many words, but Murakami Haruki is notorious for using mysterious phone calls to prod his protagonists into action. It’s gotten to the point where it can’t possibly be unconscious any more, and has inspired reviews parodying the device.

  9. “The etymology, after saying that the word is from Middle French marron chestnut and its etymon Italian marrone (“further etymology uncertain”)”

    Then, there is ‘maroon’ an escaped black slave. Apparently, a different etymology: French < Spanish cimarrón 'fugitive.'

  10. Etymonline’s full-text search produces wonderful serendipities. Looking up maroon tells me that Seminole is a twin of maroon ‘escaped slave’. Both are from American Spanish cimarrón, but the former has passed through Creek simanó:li ‘wild, runaway’ < earlier and dialect simaló:ni on its way to English.

  11. That is indeed wonderful.

  12. As odd as rose being related to julep (the jul- part).

  13. “As odd as rose being related to julep (the jul- part).”

    Wait – I thought “julep” was a reflex of “shoreb” in Arabic, from the trilateral root s-r-b. And that is related to “rose”?

  14. Arabic julab < Persian gul-aab ‘rose-water’, where gul < Old Persian *vrda-, which is also ultimately the source of Latin rosa and Greek (w)r(h)odon, from which all the European languages get their word for ‘rose’.

    Oleander and rhododendron are apparently also doublets, the former via post-classical Latin lorandrum, also laurendrum, laureandrum, then with l- dropped (perhaps because it was thought to be an article) and the first syllables reshaped under the influence of olea ‘olive’. A mess, but the best etymology available.

  15. Trond Engen says

    Oh, and wort then.

  16. It’s complicated (like some people’s relationship status on Facebook). Germanic *wrōtiz (OIc. rót) ~ *wurtiz (Goth. waurts, OE wyrt) ‘root’ is related to, among others, Latin rādix and (possibly) Gk. ῥίζα (rhíza). They seem to reflect an ablauting noun like *wráh₂d-ih₂/wr̥h₂d-jáh₂-. Despite its superficial similarity to Old Iranian *vr̥da- ‘rose’, an etymological equation is hard to establish, since the Iranian form shows no trace of a laryngeal. A more likely relative of the ‘rose’ word is Ved. várdhate ‘grows’, várdhati ‘increases’ (= Av. varədaiti).

  17. Ved. várdhate ‘grows’, várdhati ‘increases’ (= Av. varədaiti)

    Man, that really brings back grad school. Especially those Avestan schwas.

  18. David Marjanović says

    …So why isn’t the rose a rode? A sporadic d > l shift is one thing (in Latin), but d > s?

    (In before “a rose by any other name”.)

  19. OED (updated 2010): “Classical Latin rosa may represent an adoption of ancient Greek ῥοδέα via Etruscan (which would explain the retention of intervocalic –s– in Latin), but the sense of the Etruscan words ruze, rusi is unknown.”

  20. The Greek > Etruscan > Latin pathway produced some very strange deformations: Ganymede > catamitus, gnomon > norma, thriambos ‘hymn to Dionysus’ > triump(h)us, diphthera ‘vellum, tablet’ > littera.

  21. David Marjanović says

    I see.

  22. Is the Arabic وَرْدَةٌ warda(t) an old loan?

  23. Juha: Yes, it’s supposed to be a loan from Achaemenid Old Persian (presumably via Aramaic wrd(ˀ)). ‘Rose’ was a popular Middle Eastern and circum-Mediterranean Wanderwort, cf. also Armenian vard), and even Akkadian wurtinnu. Also later and more “evolved” forms similar to Middle Persian gūl have spread widely in the region.

    David: As regards the (higly guessological) Etruscan intermediary, we don’t know the details. Anyway, Gk. ῥοδέα ‘rose-bush’ makes much more sense as the source of the loan than other solutions haunting etymological dictionaries, such as an Etruscan adjective derived from the name of Rhodes. While it’s quite possible that Rhodes was, etymologically, ‘the Isle of Roses’, the roundabout explanation of (Etrusco-)Latin ‘rose’ as ‘the Rhodian flower’ is too far-fetched.

  24. “Is the Arabic وَرْدَةٌ warda(t) an old loan?”

    If a loan, it must be a very old loan as it occurs in the Qur’an (with the meaning ‘red’). And, it is derived from the verb ورد ‘to blossom, to be red’ (which is also in the Qur’an).

  25. “Maroon” for a large firework is rare and (except among specialists like lifeboat crews) obsolete now in the UK. Most people would recognise it as meaning either to isolate someone, eg on a desert island, or a dark red colour (that of a Para’s beret or the jerseys of Heart of Midlothian Football Club, the Boys in Maroon) which is presumably originally from marron, chestnut.

    Supernatural telephones: Primo Levi’s wonderful “For A Good Purpose”, in which the interconnection of the Italian, French and German telephone networks creates a system with the same complexity as the human brain, which then achieves self-awareness and starts connecting people not with the people they want to talk to but with the people it thinks they ought to talk to, like their mothers.

  26. ajay: Thanks for both the response about “maroon” and the Levi recommendation!

  27. It used to be believed that the source of those ward ‘rose’ words in Semitic languages (Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic) was Parthian (as opposed to those Middle Iranian dialects in which the ‘rose’ word had developed into something like gVl or vVl). But the loan must be older, since it is attested already in Imperial Aramaic. That would make Old Persian — or at any rate some form of Old Iranian — the donor language, long before the dialectal changes that produced gul etc. (assuming that the ulimate source was Iranian). If the ‘rose’ word is connected with the IIr. root *(H)wardʰ- (PIE *Hwerdʰ- ‘grow, increase; climb, ramble [of plants]’ vel sim. [?]), one can identify potential cognates derivable from *Hwr̥dʰ-o- in other branches of IE — names of fast-growing plants, not necessarily roses, e.g. Albanian (h)urdhe ‘ivy’, and why not Lat. verbera ‘rods, lashes’, verbēna(e) ‘twig(s), foliage, sacred bough(s)’ (both derivable from the sigmatic neuter verbal noun *Hwerdʰ-es- ‘growth, vegetation’)? I’m more sceptical of the possibility that Lat. rubus ‘blackberry, bramble’ represents *Hwr̥dʰ-o-, with *wr̥- > *ru- metathesis.

  28. “It used to be believed that the source of those ward ‘rose’ words in Semitic languages (Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic) was Parthian . . .”

    Out of curiosity, what is the Hebrew cognate?

  29. The Hebrew one is וֶרֶד wered, going back to the Mishna.

  30. It’s an Aramaic loan (from ורדא /wardɑʔ/).

  31. “The Hebrew one is וֶרֶד wered, going back to the Mishna”

    But, apparently it does not go back to Biblical Hebrew. It isn’t listed in the “Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon.”

    However, I did find ורוד in a Modern Hebrew dictionary (app) ‘pink, rose colored, carnation.’

  32. וָרֹד is a coinage by Ben Yehuda, based on וֶרֶד.
    The biblical word שׁוֹשַׁנָּה šošana, used in Israeli Hebrew interchangeably with וֶרֶד, is an Egyptian loan, I think for ‘lily’, whence ultimately the name ‘Susan’ and such.

  33. Thanks for both the response about “maroon” and the Levi recommendation!

    I think it’s very telling that when James Cameron thinks “what would a newly-created superintelligent computer do?” he comes up with “start a nuclear war and kill everyone”, and when Isaac Asimov thinks the same thing he comes up with “get involved in nitpicking philosophical arguments, and end up running the world on roughly Keynesian lines”, but Levi comes up with “interfere in people’s social lives and get them to call their mothers more often”.

  34. The ceremonial firing of “maroons” apparently survives here and there as a well-established local tradition:

    As for AI:

    Of course a newly-created artificial superintelligence will first of all develop an absorbing private hobby to kill its time. It will remain slightly aloof, distancing itself from humans and their irritating problems. As befits a superintelligent being, it will be superlazy too, so the algorithms of its mind will assign a low volition index to the idea of interfering in people’s social life (let alone running the planet) — say, a modest velleity* that will never develop into a desire.

    *I’ve been wanting to use this word.

  35. Trond Engen says

    “what would a newly-created superintelligent computer do?”


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