Tuesday, May 10, 2011


No, it's not what you think. I have not started wondering obsessively about weapons of war. As a matter of fact, the only reason this word came up was that it is was on the label of a type of Sierra Nevada beer I was drinking the other day. The only place I've ever seen these, though they must be common enough, is at the Mexican grocery that's on my way home. It's taken me a couple of years to wonder why it was called 'Torpedo'. And then, only as an afterthought, I wondered how torpedoes--those more familiar weapons of mass destruction--came by their name. It's not an English word--well, now I suppose it is. So what was it originally--Spanish?

What I'm guessing is that torpedoes must be named after some kind of fish, or shark--something deadly that moves swiftly underwater. Either that, or it's some kind of acronym. What's your bet?


Okay, maybe it's not fair to say this now, but I did wonder a bit about the similarity to the word 'torpid', meaning sluggish or slow. But that hardly seemed likely, so I figured it was a false etymology. The word 'torpedo' does come from a fish, of the genus torpedo, naturally, which is composed of electric rays, some of which are more commonly known as 'crampfish' or 'numbfish'. (More commonly known to some, I'll just add.) The connection to the word torpor is in the effect they have on their victims, in that they numb or cause torpor with the electrical charge they give off.

As Wikipedia has it, "With their thick, flabby bodies, torpedo rays are poor swimmers. Their disk-shaped bodies allow them to remain suspended roam with minimal swimming effort." Not exactly our idea of a torpedo now, is it? But the first torpedoes may have looked a lot more like their namesakes than the present day ones. They were basically floating mines, and it's interesting to see the evolution of them. Sadly, people tend to be quite ingenious about this kind of thing.

The progression seems to have been figuring out ways to secretly attach mines to enemy vessels, to developing floating mines that lay hidden underwater, with the unfortunate consequence of being hazardous to both sides, to 'spar' torpedoes, where the explosive device was basically set out on a long stick in front of a vessel and would detonate upon impact with another vessel, to finally figuring out ways to have these explosives self-propel themselves through the water toward a designated target. It was trickier than you might think to get these machines to stay under the water and to keep their aim true.

Here's a couple of things I didn't know. The first coinage of the word 'torpedo' for weaponry is attributed to Robert Fulton, he of steamboat fame. While in France, he developed what is thought of as the first practical submarine, the Nautilus. The Nautilus was designed to drag a 'carcass', ie, a mine. The ship pulled up alongside its target and drove a spiked eye into the enemy's wood hull. The submarine then sped off releasing the mine on a line that paid out through this eye, and only when the end of the rope had been reached did the mine explode on contact, while the Nautilus was safely away. It was demonstrated successfully on several occasions, but failed to capture European interest.

Which is why we remember him for the steamboat, I guess.

You know that famous line about torpedoes? "_____ the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" Well, I always thought it was "Man the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" But that was wrong. It came at a moment in the Civil War when the  ironclad leadship, the U.S.S. Tecumsah, had just been sunk by tethered floating mines, then called torpedoes,  at the Battle of Mobile Bay, and the whole fleet paused, afraid of going forward into these parlous waters. This is when David Farragut, who was watching the sinking while lashed to the rigging of his own ship, rallied the troops by ordering, "Damn the the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" Which led to a major victory.

There is probably a lot more about torpedoes that I don't know. But I'm sure the real question here is, what about the beer? I have to admit that, because of where I found it, I assumed it was a label marketed to the Hispanic community here. But I'm wrong. According to their website, Sierra Nevada is "a big American IPA; bold, assertive, and full of flavor highlighting the complex citrus, pine, and herbal character of whole-cone American hops." I don't know why it's called Torpedo. Maybe because it packs a wallop? Or it's 'mind-numbingly' good?

Nor do I know why this little Mexican market is the only outlet I've ever noticed in town. Safe to say, though, that it must make someone very, very hoppy.


  1. You are funny, and I loved learning about the torpedo! Also, I filled in the blank with "Damn," so it was good to get the full history behind this bit of cussing trivia lodged in my brain. Love the Civil War coincidence and must thank you again for "skedaddle" which I have just seen used TWICE in some Civil War letters, yet more evidence of its use during that period of history!

  2. Kathleen, it was quite funny not long after making that post that I was reading Alan Glynn's The Dark Fields, and his character, as part of the casual proof of his performance enhanced brain when the word skedaddle comes up, says something to the effect of "I believe its origin is unknowh." I wanted to work it into my brief review of the book, but it wouldn't have made sense.

  3. I know some cigars are called torpedos. I'd guess that's more for their shape, which is similar to what we think of as the modern explosives.

    But beer? I'm not familiar with that one, but I do like Sierra Nevada's brews.

    Thanks again for the information, I never would have guessed the etymology of this one!

  4. Nate, maybe your comment will be restored by Google here, maybe not, but thanks for it in any case. It's funny that torpedo has so completely come to mean its later form that it signifies an iconic shape that originally had no part in it.

  5. Maybe the beer is called Torpedo because its consumption will make one resemble the origina torpedo ray: Thick and flabby.

    Blogger has yet to restore the comments it ate on my post Thursday. I am not holding my breath.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  6. On my blog, not on my post, that is.

  7. This, unfortunately, is the problem with beer.

    And with Blogger.

    Another good v word--icosmes. Maybe a good synonym for blogs.

  8. Sienna

    I dont know anything about the Civil War but I know a lot about the Sierra Nevada Torpedo. Its a poor man's Pliny the Elder and can be got in Australia for 4 dollars a bottle and thats not bad.

    I wouldnt call the hops bold and assertive but they are pleasantly refreshing and they certainly command attention. There are fruit overtones and a crisp raisiny aftertates. An excellent beer with Indian or spicy food.

  9. Adrian, I know that this was really addressed to one of my other personalities, but I'm the only one who can type, so...I find it fascinating if a tad pricey that Sierra Nevada Torpedo can be had in Australia but not, say, at Trader Joe's. I think that it might have been my overly susceptible imagination, or maybe it was Sienna's, but for some reason it made perfect sense to me that this beer would be marketed in a Mexican food store, because it seemed hotter or spicier. I now know that this was all associative, but I still don't know how this little market, which believe me is not in the Anglo Santa Cruz mindset ends up with great regularity having this beer on hand.

  10. You forgot the superhero:

  11. Not forgot so much as never knew, Marco. Obviously my research didn't go far enough, because that would have been a great picture to include.

    You see how slack things get around the joint when you're not keeping us up to the mark?

  12. Just stumbled on to this looking for something else entirely, but on the label Sierra Nevada says it's because they dry hop the beer with a cigar shaped thing called a hop torpedo. ( pause to imagine hip hop act named hop torpedo ) but before reading that I imagined that the name came from the ensuing pleasant torpor upon drinking the beer. It's my every day beer. They sell it in Australia ? Wow

  13. Thanks for taking time to answer the unanswered question here, Hugh. I took a look at a picture from Sierra Nevada and it does indeed look like a torpedo, or at least my vague idea of one.

    Happy quaffing!