THE (TERMINATED) SEARCH FOR THE ORIGIN OF THE PLUMBER PART II (OF III): EARLY TEXTUAL EVIDENCE

by Daniel Gelaf

In our last installment, our investigation made a few significant inroads into the meaning and possible origin of the quaint and curiously (mostly) McGill-specific nickname “The Plumbers” for the engineers. It was discovered that the term began as a moniker for the science students in toto, before narrowing in scope as the Faculty of Engineering split from the Faculty of Science, and subsequently developed an identity of its own. It was also determined that, as opposed to sewers, pipes, and toilets, the term almost certainly derives from plumbing to the level, as in the once-ubiquitous engineering tool the plumb line or plumb bob.

Our previous investigation trailed off in 1925, before which no textual evidence was found in the microfilm archives of the McGill Daily through which our editors painstakingly combed for weeks, selflessly sacrificing their eyesight and sanity. However, other sources exist, and will aid us in our search. While the Daily may have debuted the Plumber in 1925, the same year as the New Yorker andThe Great Gatsby, the archives of the McGill University yearbook, Old McGill, which are fairly comprehensive and go back into the nineteenth century, provide us with much more fodder toward our peculiar ends.

In 1923 (Volume XXV, although numbering is rather inconsistent here), in the chapter “Science,” the opening letter “History of Science ‘23” concludes with a short humorous acrostic poem entitled “Science Juniors, or, Lines Mathematically Manufactured by a Pair of Philosophic Plumbers.”

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This is no passing or cryptic mention — this is a clear-cut and obvious employment of the term “plumber” to refer to the Applied Science Men in no uncertain terms. It denotes their character, activities, and ideology as a campus population. We are clearly on the right path; the term obviously predates 1925, and by quite a bit, if this poem is to be taken as evidence that the nickname was already entrenched at this point. The single earliest mentions of the word “plumber” in Old McGill (or, as it was earlier called, the McGill Annual or James McGill His Book or The McGill Year Book) that can be reasonably said to unambiguously refer to the modern sense of the term are in 1922. In the one-off, dark and gritty reboot inexplicably dubbed “Volume One,” a few passing mentions established the term as existing and referring to the science undergraduates or a specific club (possibly the Mechanical Club, precursor to the EUS and later linked with the term). These are identical to later uses, such as those in ’24, and crop up mostly in personal mini-bios (e.g., W. Alex. Falconer: “Junior Hockey, 1918-19. Member Commercial Society. Arose from Westmount in 1900. Received education at Westmount High, from which institution joined the McGill ‘plumbers’ for a year but has now come to earth in Commerce ’22.”) Outside of this, the following feature should suffice to display its use, explicitly referring to the Science Undergraduates’ Society and the Faculty of Science:

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Earlier uses of the word “plumber” in yearbooks past abound, but seem to be literal. To go back any further, we must turn to yet another staid companion of the literate McGillian: the once essential, yet now all but forgotten musical bible, the McGill University Song Book. The 1921 reprint of this 1885 classic of campus culture contains a number of new songs and anthems recorded for posterity, including “Song of the Faculty of Arts,” words and music by E. Wallace Willard, Jr. (Arts ’23). Although this gentle ribbing of the sciences comes from the outside, it does make reference to the now-common cognomen of the Boilermakers.

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It remains a mystery why this is supposed to be a flattering representation of my Faculty, the ones who do nothing but daydream instead of doing good works, fighting for justice, or healing the sick. But hey, I’ll take it. This is the earliest instance I can find of the unambiguous use of the term “plumber” to refer to students of the sciences at McGill, and the fact that it crops up when it does provides us with the necessary clues to go beyond the campus entirely and discover the nickname’s origin in our next installment.■

Until then: Maintain that constant supply of wash-basin plugs, or you’ll regret it later on!

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