Dan Holohan: What's in a name?
Questioning the plumbing industry's lexicon.
We have so many names for common things and tools that we use in this business; and because I have way too much time on my hands, I started wondering how those names came to be. For instance, calling a tee a “tee” makes sense because that’s exactly what it looks like when you hold it a certain way. If you install it with the bull on the bottom, it becomes a bullhead tee because it looks sort of like, well, a bull’s head. Or not, use your imagination.
Why do we call the side of the tee that’s not the run the “bull?” Why do we call the part that goes straight through the “run?” It’s not going anywhere once you install it, is it? Maybe we should call it the “just hanging-out” fitting. The elbow got its name for an obvious reason — it turns. But, when your arm is hanging at your side, your elbow doesn’t turn, yet we still call it an elbow. That makes no sense. If you stand up, do you no longer have a lap? Maybe “elbow” isn’t the best name for that particular fitting; perhaps we should just call it a “90,” as so many do. Or maybe a “45?”
That brings me to the “street elbow.” Who the heck came up with that name, and what does it even mean? I’ve asked a bunch of friends in the business, and they each have what they think is the correct answer. No two answers are the same, so I continue to wonder about street elbows.
A “dresser coupling” sounds like something out of a fashion or a furniture magazine, but it’s really named after its inventor, Solomon Robert Dresser. He was an inventor and a Republican member of Congress from Pennsylvania. The coupling began its life in the oil- and- gas industry as a connection between a service station’s suction pump and the end of the line extending upward in the pump island. It somehow worked its way into our world as the “slip coupling,” which better describes what it does. But, two names for the same thing? I think that if you give a common item more than one name, you’re just looking for trouble. Pity the poor guy at the counter.
Consider the “monkey wrench.” No one knows for sure why we call it that, but my favorite story is that the guy who invented it was named Charles Moncky. There are a bunch of stories about him. I’m not sure if any of them are true. He’s the personification of the street elbow. I do like his name, though. It’s fun. It must have been a tough one for little Charlie to carry though the schoolyard. Then there is that delicious expression about someone throwing a monkey wrench into something. I don’t know how that came to be. I wonder why they chose to throw that one and not a Stillson wrench.
Speaking of which, the “Stillson wrench” is definitely not a monkey wrench, even though the two get called by each other’s names all of the time. Daniel Chapman Stillson gets credit for that invention. After the Civil War, Mr. Stillson went to work for James Jones Walworth, who, along with his brother-in law, Joseph Nason, were America’s first heating contractors. Mr. Stillson whittled his first wrench out of wood and sold his patent for the metal version to Mr. Walworth, who paid Mr. Stillson a royalty that made him a very wealthy man.
There is a heating contractor in Tehran, Iran named Rooholah. I asked him if they have the same situation with names over there. “We also have odd names in our language. For example, we call a monkey wrench a ‘French spanner.’ That’s ‘faranseh achar’ in Persian. No one can tell me the reason we call it that. Also, we call Stillson wrench a ‘whip wrench,’ or ‘shalagi achar’ in Persian. These are just two of many odd names that we practice in everyday business,” he answered.
Once, I was in a large boiler room in Frankfurt, Germany, when I saw a sign chained to a big wye strainer. It read, “Schmutzfänger!” I smiled at the exclamation point. The Germans put a lot of exclamation points on their signs. “Fänger,” the second half of Schmutzfänger, is German for “catcher,” which makes sense. Being a New Yorker, I knew that “schmutz” the first part of the word, is Yiddish, not German, and that it means “dirt.” I know this because I’ve listened to many Brooklyn contractors talk about all the schmutz that came pouring out of that pipe when they cut it. “Oy, you shoulda seen it,” they say.
Speaking of cutting metal things, why do we call a hacksaw a “hacksaw?” A hacksaw is actually pretty precise, isn’t it? So why call it a hack? Is it because of the sound that it makes? Hmmm again, I don’t know. Pipe fittings have genders and it’s easy to figure out which is which just by looking at them. This one over here is male, or what we in New York call a “gozinta.” See it? And that one over there is female (that’s “gozova” in New York). Knowing this, I just have to wonder: Is a street elbow a hermaphrodite?
Then, there are the nipples. We have barrel nipples, close nipples, hex nipples, hose nipples and welding nipples. I get nervous just thinking about all of them, especially when someone shortens nipples to “nips.”
That’s almost more than I can bear. A friend asked why a toilet is also known as a “water closet.” Where the heck did that come from? I scratched my head and then wrote to my friend Larry Weingarten, author of “The Water Heater Workbook.” Larry knows a lot about old water heaters, and plumbing in general. He said, “I think calling it a water closet was to differentiate it from the earth closet which arrived before the water closet. The earth closet was a composting toilet, which you would often find right next to the dining-room table.” Hey, why waste steps?
An old article in the Chicago Tribune told me that the Zerk fitting was the invention of Oscar Zerk, “an eccentric engineer/inventor who lived in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and was associated with Nash Motors.” But feel free to call it a “grease fitting” if you like. You probably already do. That device sticking out of the end of most compression tanks is a “Schrader valve”. Most everybody knows that. But did you know that August Schrader, who came to America from Germany, invented it in 1891, right after British bicycle manufacturers began to make pneumatic tires? Schrader also invented the tire-valve cap not long after cars with pneumatic tires showed up. Quite a guy, that August Schrader.
How about that odd fitting under most every sink? Whether you call that fitting a “trap adapter,” a “SWA” (slip waste adapter), a “Desanco fitting” or a “Sanko fitting” is up to you. By the way, someone told me that Desanco was short for the Detroit Sanitary Co. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. He also told me that the Detroit Sanitary Co. made Falopian tubing.
Is it a “spigot,” a “hose bib,” a “tap,” a “faucet” or a “cock?” Again, it’s entirely up to you, but I advise you to think twice before saying “cock,” “cock-hole cover” or “pet cock.” You may not be speaking to industry professionals. Flat bastard file anyone?
On to the tools we use every day. Screwdrivers can be “flat-heads,” “torx,” “hex,” or “Phillips,” and there are more. Each comes with a delicious story. There’s a lot going on with screwdrivers. Another friend told me that in the deep South, the humble Channellock (or “water pump pliers?”) is known as “hog jaws.” Of course they are. In Mexico, they call them “pericos,” which is “parrot” in Spanish. Does a Channellock look like a parrot’s beak? I’ll let you decide. The “spud wrench” earned its name because it looks like the simple digging tool that the Irish used to use to plant potatoes. Another fine story attached to that one.
Years ago, I was on a job in Colorado with my buddy, Mark Eatherton. He pointed at the black foam insulation that covered the heating pipes and said, “The guys did a nice job with the double-d.” Never having heard that term, I asked Mark what “double-d” stood for. He told me, I'm still chuckling.