Five phrases associated with the disaster are still in common use

1. And the band played on.

The image of the orchestra playing as the ship sank, symbolises heroic selflessness and courage. As a contemporary newspaper put it:

the part played by the orchestra on board the Titanic in her last dreadful moments will rank among the noblest in the annals of heroism at sea.

Lead by an English bandleader, thirty-three-year old Wallace Hartley, the string ensemble began playing on the upper deck soon after the Titanic struck the iceberg in order to calm the passengers.

What happened in the final stage of the sinking in early hours of April 1912 is impossible to verify. One survivor claimed that the band was playing a 19th Century hymn, Nearer My God to Thee as the last lifeboat sailed away.

Contemporary newspaper reports followed the advice given in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, ‘when the legend becomes fact, print the legend’.

When Hartley’s body was recovered two weeks after the disaster, newspapers it was reported that he was “fully dressed with his music case strapped to his body”. This seems appropriate if wildly improbable. His violin did survive, fetching a record-breaking $1.6 million at auction in 2013.

Monument to Wallace Hartley, Colne, Lancashire. With thanks to Poliphilo for use of photo CC
Hartley’s recovered violin sold at at auction in 2013 for $1.6 million — a record for an item Titanic memorabilia

‘And the band played on’ has been a favourite in newspaper headlines ever since. In 1987 it was the title of a best-selling account of the early history of HIV/AIDS by Randy Shilts. By this point, the phrase had obtained a harder edge to reflect more cynical times, with the ‘band playing on’ representing ‘incompetence and apathy’ rather than heroic stoicism.

2. The tip of the iceberg

Only 10% of an iceberg is visible above the surface of the water — the perfect metaphor for hidden danger. On the ship itself this took a deadly practical form. The lookouts did not spot the fatal hazard until it was too late for the ship to avoid it. In fact, attempting to escape a head-on collision caused an even worse outcome as the side of the ship sliced open, allowing each individual sealed cabin to be successively flooded.

Recent research suggests the phrase may have another resonance in relation to the — Titanic. One theory is that

‘the ship crashed because the iceberg was disguised by an ‘optical illusion — similar to the blur seen on a road during a warm day’ source

3. Women and children first

It is often assumed that this convention emerged from a maritime code of practice. In fact the first recorded use of this phrase was in the novel Harrington: A True Story of Love by William O’Connor written in 1860. This became part of Victorian lore and was never a legal requirement or even an official recommendation. Nor, contrary to legend, was it the order given by Captain Edward Smith.

The instruction given by Captain Smith was ‘put the women and children in and lower away’. Confusion over the precise meaning of this probably lead to avoidable fatalities.

Unfortunately for the men aboard the sinking ship, some of the officers misunderstood the order and prevented men from climbing aboard the lifeboats. The final casualties explain the cost of that misunderstanding: 74% of the women and 52% of the children were saved. Only 20% of the men survived. source

In recent years there has been a lot of emphasis on the social class element of the disaster. Were the first class passengers favoured over those travelling Second or Third? Again, contrary to myth, the evidence would suggest not.

The survival advantage of First Class passengers was due to the position of their cabins on the ship rather than selection bias. If anything, there was an overzealous application of the rules, resulting in the failure to fill all the lifeboats.

4. The unsinkable ship

Perhaps the most disputed phrase in maritime history. The owners and shipbuilders categorically deny that this claim was ever made. This may be technically true but the phrase was associated with the ship before she sailed.

Advertising material may have been important in creating the idea in the popular imagination. In a White Star Line brochure for Titanic and her sister ship, Olympic it is stated that the vessels were ‘designed to be unsinkable’.

A White Star Line brochure mislead passengers

That phrase could be applied to any ship design, but many passengers assumed a literal interpretation. Thomas Beattie wrote to a family member, “We are changing ships and coming home in a new unsinkable boat.”

In reality, the design of the Titanic made her catastrophically vulnerable in certain circumstances — see here. The only thing unsinkable about the Titanic has been its potency as an exemplar of hubris. Interestingly, the ‘unsinkable’ claim was transferred to one of the survivors — Molly Brown. She was strongly critical of the rescue operation and became so famous that a film musical was made of her life The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)

5. Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic

Wasting time dealing with things that are not important while ignoring a much more serious problem (Cambridge English Dictionary)

Rearranging the deckchair — meaning to engage in irrelevant actions when confronted with a potential disaster first appeared in a 1969 Time article about Vatican reform. The writer acknowledged the image was metaphorical, something often been forgotten since. Serious mistakes were made in the Titanic evacuation but deckchair rearrangement did not form a part of it.

Titanic FAQ Teaching Materials



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