Saturday, July 28, 2007

Mr. Bowser's Wonderful Machine

Thanks to Michael Quinion’s admirable newsletter on word history (link), we learn that there really was a Mr. Bowser:

Floods have caused enormous damage in parts of southern Britain in the past week or so; ironically, one result is that in the worst- hit areas local residents have lost their water supplies because treatment plants have flooded. On Monday, BBC News reported that drinking water was to be brought into the stricken areas usingbowsers. This word had presumably been taken from information supplied by Severn Trent Water, the water company that is most affected. BBC reporters - together with other radio and TV news broadcasters and some newspapers - felt it necessary to explain this odd term in case it would not be understood. "Bowser" is rather specialist, not being the sort of word that you naturally drop into daily conversation unless you run a service station or an airport. But it's neither archaic nor especially rare, though it doesn't mean the same thing in every country in which it's used....

We owe its existence to the late Mr Sylvanus Bowser, of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Early in the twentieth century he invented what he called the self-measuring gasoline storage pump but which we have long since abbreviated to petrol pump or gasoline pump. ... At some point, the usage extended beyond providing fuels to supplying water, especially in military situations and on construction and building sites. They may not have recognised the word, but many flood-affected people have been very grateful for bowsers.

Welcome to Valhalla, Mr. Bowser. Mr. Dempster and Mr. Jacuzzi are here waiting. Any minute we’re expecting Mr. Two-row Cotton Picking Machine.

Fn.: Cleaned up to ungarble a garbled paragraph, January 20, 2008.

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