The Search for the Origins of the Plumber (Terminated) Part III (OF III): The War to End All Wars and Also This Article Series

by Daniel Gelaf

What evidence we’ve thus far uncovered about the peculiarly (but not exclusively) McGillian moniker “The Plumbers” has included determining an etymological origin (plumber’s bob, not plumber’s crack, although textual evidence shows that the two meanings ambiguously referenced in the nickname were almost immediately conflated and the true original denotation quickly forgotten) as well as tracking down some of the earliest print mentions to 1921 in the Old McGill yearbook and the McGill University Song Book, several years earlier than the nickname was previously thought to have existed.

To continue our quest to unearth the actual origin of the term, we will need to expand our scope out from the campus. It was already shown that McMaster’s engineers employ a similar, if differently spelled, autonym, and that in the earliest mentions cited the name is used without explanation as if it were an existing slang term already in widespread use. This would seem to lead us to believe that the term was actually coined outside of McGill, and for some reason was imported and became hugely popular sometime around nineteen-twenty or a bit earlier.

McGill was hugely impacted by one particular event that occurred around that time, a conflict that massively changed culture and language on a global scale and in which McGill students specifically played a major part: World War One. Over three thousand McGillians enlisted for the Great War, the Daily printed a regular War Contingent Supplement, and the school even had its own special battalion within the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The War was perhaps the single most significant linguistic event in the modern era, modernizing language the same way it did politics and technology, albeit at the cost of an estimated seventeen million lives and for ultimate causes that were amoral and murky to say the least. Of the various interlingual mixings and new slangs, one of the most famous was the peculiar jargon, known as “banter,” employed by the flying aces in the RFC (later the RAF) and other contemporary air forces, which has since become well-known and highly influential via its portrayal in hundreds of books and war films such as Piece of Cake. Mostly in Commonwealth realms, many elements of RAF banter have ended up in common use, or in highly localized cant. While it is impossible to precisely date this slang due to its informal nature, it is recorded in a number of specialty dictionaries as well as scores of primary sources such as pilots’ diaries and veterans’ memories.

The RCAF (then the CAF) barely existed during the Great War, but Canadian flyers oversees naturally shared in the linguistic tradition and had their own variations on the Brits’ lingo. In particular, the Canadian Fighter Pilot and Air Gunner Museum records Canadian airmen using the slang term “plumber” to refer to armourers. Specifically, the term referred to “Originally any member of armament trades, but extended later to most ground technical tradesmen.” Without a precise date of origin for the pilots’ slang, it may be impossible to say for certain that this usage predates the adoption of the term by the McGill Faculty of Science, but by all accounts air force banter hit its peak during WWI, afterward rapidly dwindling out of use as an archaicism. So it perfectly fits both our established timetable and the spirit of early use to connect the term “plumber” to the popular nickname applied by Tommies returning from No Man’s Land in reference to military engineers or “sappers” who neatly fit the description “ground technical tradesmen.”

This shouldn’t be that surprising. McGill’s heavy involvement in the Great War is widely known, and the source of the single earliest print mention of the name as determined last issue, the 1921 reprint of the 1885 McGill University Song Book, was specifically reprinted for and dedicated to “those sons of McGill who did not return.” Not only does the entire book begin with the full text of “In Flanders Fields” as an epigraph (sharing the honor with the blackletter motto on the recto: “Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori”), but the back matter is largely dedicated to songs and poems brought back by the Tommies from the front, including a whole chapter entitled “Trench Ditties,” containing such enduring standards as “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” “On the Road to Old Ypres,” and the “Conscientious Objector’s Lament.” The latter, penned by prominent twentieth-century tunesmith and McGill alum Lt. Gitz Rice, is still so steeped in the fervor and jingoism of combat that it decries anti-war citizens as selfish cowards: “Call out my brother and my sister and my mother / But for gosh sake don’t call me.”

Without decisive and unambiguous textual evidence, I can’t close the book and declare that the engineers’ nickname “The Plumbers” is absolutely and without a doubt a product of the Great War, but I hope that I have collected enough and varied evidence to establish this scenario as the best possible explanation, given what we know about McGill and the war effort. The moniker has come a long way since the trenches and concertina wire of the bloody World War, and the small population size and rapid turnover of university life has meant that its origins were forgotten soon after it caught on, so much so that by the nineteen-fifties the PPO was already adopting toilet bowls as their self-deprecating symbol. But, this November, amidst Remembrance Day and the autumn leaves, when we can look back one century today and recall McGill students fighting and dying in the thousands overseas, note that many of the things they brought back, sorrows, trauma, and, ultimately, victory, have stayed with us . . . including, for the McGill Engineers, one particularly persistent nickname which the Plumbers and this publication wear with pride.

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