"The Bends"

Richard Gage rgage at INTRAH.ORG
Tue Apr 16 14:35:34 UTC 2002

What I find interesting in all this is the gap between the first
OED cite for the caisson method of bridge construction (1753) and
the first OED mention of caisson-sickness (1875 B. RICHARDSON _Dis.
Mod. Life_ 70) and "the bends" (1902). How soon after the adoption
of this construction method did workers begin complaining about
the symptoms of decompression?  What term or terms did these "sandhogs"
first use to describe this illness?  When did the medical profession
finally take note? Was this at first one of those misunderstood
occupational illnesses like "mad hatter's disease"? (Sounds like a
for Barry Popik).

On Mon, 15 Apr 2002 at 20:55, Gerald Cohen wrote:
 > "The bends" are connected with the construction of the Eads Bridge
 > in St. Louis (completed in 1874) and caused the death of at least
 > several workers. About eight years ago there was a long article
 > about the construction of the bridge, including a discussion
 > of "the bends." It was in a journal named something like _Science
 > and Technology_, and I have a copy of the article somewhere in my
 > office. When I'm back there in a few days, I'll look for it and
 > then post the bibliographical information to ads-l.

On Mon, 15 Apr 2002 at 11:45, Michael <michael at RFA.ORG> wrote:
 > Does anyone have a date and source for the first use of the
 > term "the bends" to refer to the difficulties that divers
 > experience with nitrogen solubility and decompression?

 > I would like to know not only where the term originated, but
 > also how and when it came to be used outside of the diving
 > community as in the phrase, "get bent".

On Mon, 15 Apr 2002 at 12:51, Richard Gage wrote [edited]:
The earliest cite the OED gives for "the bends" is 1902; but it also
lists an 1894 cite for "bend" which employs the same sense. From the
definitions and etymologies given below, it would appear that the
expressions "the bends" and "get bent" have altogether different

[Excerpted from OED definitions for "the bends," "caisson,"
"caisson-sickness/disease," and "bent"]:

*bend, n.4*
I. Related to BEND v. II.
2.b. the bends : the acute attacks of pain in muscles and joints
suffered on over-rapid reduction of the surrounding air pressure,
chiefly by workers in compressed air who are decompressed too
quickly, with consequent liberation of dissolved nitrogen from the
body tissues. Also, more loosely, the whole disease (also called
caisson-disease) produced by decompression.

1894 Westm. Gaz. 16 Oct. 3/2
The pressure..is quite enough to give the men a dose of
the 'bend' [sic] as it is called.

1902 Idler July 485
That..terrible air-pressure disease known as the 'bends'.

1913 PEMBREY & RITCHIE Gen. Path. 494
These pains [in Caisson disease] pass off in a few hours, and are
known to the workmen as 'bends', apparently because of the flexed
positions which they induce.

1962 Listener 29 Mar. 562/1
Nitrogen narcosis must not be confused with decompression sickness,
commonly known as the bends.

2. Hydraulics.    a. A large water-tight case or chest used in
laying foundations of bridges, etc., in deep water.

1753 CHAMBERS Cycl. Supp.,
Caisson is also used for a kind of chest used in laying the foundations
of the piers of bridges.

1765 Ann. Reg. 12/2
The greatest part of the first course [of the sixth pier of Blackfriars
bridge] carried by the Caissoon.

1823 P. NICHOLSON Pract. Build. 305
M. Labelye erected the piers [of Westminster Bridge] in caissons, or
water-tight boxes.

1875 B. RICHARDSON Dis. Mod. Life 70
The effect of atmospheric pressure on men who are employed to work
in caissons.

4. attrib. and in comb., as caisson disease (see quots.);
caisson-gate = sense 2c. caisson sickness = caisson disease.

1883 Harper's Mag. July 945/1 The 'caisson disease' is the result of
living under atmospheric pressure greatly above that to which the human
system is normally adapted.

1887 Health 11 Mar. 394
What is known as the 'caisson disease' is not produced by the mere
increase of atmospheric pressure, but by the sudden diminution of it
on leaving the caisson, which produces ruptures of small blood-vessels.

1911 Engineer 10 Mar. 243 Caisson Sickness and Compressed Air.

* bent, ppl. a.*

5. fig. (cf. CROOKED a. 3). In various slang uses:
   a. Dishonest, 'crooked', criminal. Also as n. orig. U.S.
   b. Illegal; stolen. orig. U.S.
   c. Of things: out of order, spoiled. Of persons: eccentric,
      perverted; spec. homosexual (also as n.). (In quot.
      1958 'faithless'.)

 c. 1930 BROPHY & PARTRIDGE Songs & Slang 1914-18 (ed. 2) 210
Bent, spoiled, ruined, e.g. 'a good man bent' or even 'good tea bent'.

1942 BERREY & VAN DEN BARK Amer. Thes. Slang [sec.]143/4
Eccentric. Balmy, bats, bent, [etc.]. Ibid. [sec.] 152/5 Insane;
crazy... bent.

1956 I. ASIMOV 9 Tomorrows (1963) iii. 87 He's gone crazy... He was
always a little bent. Now he's broken.

1957 RAWNSLEY & WRIGHT Night Fighter v. 75
Whenever a set became unserviceable in the air the code word used to
notify ground control was to say that the weapon was 'bent'.

1957 A. WILSON Bit off Map 29
'I shouldn't think you did know any Teddy boys, but if you did, I know
what they'd call you [{em}] a f [{em}]  bent, see.'..Mr.
Fleet..reddened with fury; his reputation as a womaniser was known
to everyone.

1958 F. NORMAN Bang to Rights III. 72
My bird's gone bent... She went case with some geezer now she's
liveing [sic] with him.

1959 C. MACINNES Absolute Beginners 64
No one..cares..if you're boy, or girl, or bent, or versatile, or what
you are.

1960 F. RAPHAEL Limits of Love I. v. 70
'Great thing about gay people...' 'Gay?' Tessa said. 'Bent,
queer, you know. Homosexual.'

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