What story could be a more stirring one than Sir Francis Drake’s capture of a treasure-laden galleonoff the coast of Ecuador in 1579? What could be more thrilling to imagine than the great aerial dogfights between the Luftwaffe and English Spitfires during the Battle of Britain in 1940? And what could be heroic than a grad student drawing an etymological connection between the two events in North Carolina in 1989?
Some of world’s most exciting events have come to my attention in the most humdrum of ways. It is, I suppose, the bookworm’s fate. But while I have learned some amazing things from musty old books, it was a memorable day indeed when I inserted the brand-new CD-ROM of the Oxford English Dictionary into a computer by the Reference Desk at UNC’s Davis Library. What fun it was (what deeply nerdy fun!) to peruse a venerable philological database in a state-of-the-art electronic fashion. What a revelation it was to pore over the results of these new-fangled “word searches” as they came chugging out of the clunky dot-matrix printer.
I spent a lot of time with this disk over the next few weeks. One day it occurred to me that I’d like to know how word focus, which means “hearth” in Latin, had come to have the abstract meaning of “center” in English. It made sense, of course. The hearth is the innermost part of a home. Still, I wondered, when had the fire gone out of the fireplace? (It was still present in the Spanish derivatives: fuego, for instance, is the standard word for “fire.”) Surely the OED could supply the answer, as in fact it did. “Focus” had been coined in English by no less than Thomas Hobbes. “The focus of an hyperbole is in the axis,” he writes, in a mathematical lesson from 1656. Good enough, I thought, ready to move on.
But then I noticed, a little further down in the list of search results, the word “Cacafuego,” the name, as it happens, of a Spanish ship. A few years before Hobbes was born, Sir Francis Drake had surprised the Spaniards in the Pacific by seizing a treasure ship, Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, more colloquially known as the Cacafuego, “The Shit-Fire.” Although her title would suggest a warship of some ferocity, the Cacafuego was unarmed and surrendered to Drake without a fight. Sir Francis was richly rewarded for his labor, making off with chest upon chest of silver and gold, “about £12 million today,” according to Wikipedia. But despite the enormous haul, it was the galleon’s florid name that seemed to stick in English minds.
Now, the Elizabethans were a frank people, but still given to a sort of winking euphemism. We can thank them for words like “Gosh” for “God,” “Zounds” for “By His Wounds,” and yes, “spitfire” for the more accurate “shitfire.” Still, from the seventeenth century onward, quotations for both “cacafuego” and “spitfire” are to be found in English. A pugnacious connotation still clung to the spitfire even into the twentieth century, and it was eventually applied to the name of a fighter-plane designed by engineer, R.J. Mitchell, which was the hero of the Battle of Britain.
There’s a movie from 1942, in fact, all about the triumphant rise of this fighter. Called “First of the Few” in England and “Spitfire” in America, the film was directed by the Leslie Howard, who also played Mitchell. At one point, Mitchell/Howard thinks out loud about what to name his new aircraft. “The plane’s a curious sort of bird, a bird that breathes fire and spits out death and destructions—a spitfire bird!” The real Mitchell had been apparently more derisive when informed by his employers about the plane’s title. “Just the sort of bloody silly name they would choose,” he is reported to have said. Whether he was channeling for Sir Francis Drake I will not speculate.