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Titanic deck chairs' sad symbolism lives on
Updated 4/7/2012 10:34 AM ET
If you're looking for a phrase that captures a pointless effort in the face of an impending disaster, it might be "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

But the origin of the most famous expression from the most infamous shipwreck in history is not quite clear. It may not have been first used until half a century after the disaster itself.

Linguists say the expression first appeared in the late 1960s: Etymologist Michael Quinlon found an early use of the phrase in a December 1969 issue of Time magazine, in an article about reforms in the Catholic church:

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"One clergyman has been quoted as saying the numerous reforms taking place today are only 'shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.' "

Another early use of the phrase is by musician Joseph Eger who was quoted in a 1972 New York Times article about administrative problems at Lincoln Center:

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"Administrators are running around straightening out deck chairs while the Titanic goes down."

"There are relatively few examples in the 1970s, but it is obviously becoming more popular," reports slang lexicographer Jonathon Green.

Hapless comic strip character Dilbert would be familiar with the expression's definition in Wiktionary : "To do something pointless or insignificant that will soon be overtaken by events, or that contributes nothing to the solution of a current problem."

The Urban Dictionary agrees, describing it as "a situation when someone tries to futily reform the way things are done in a failing system."

Sound like a typical day in your office?

Unfortunately, according to Quinion, who runs the linguistics web site World Wide Words, "the ultimate source of the expression is unknown."

And what about the deck chairs themselves? Could they have been rearranged or shuffled?

With only about 2 1/2 hours between when the Titanic hit the iceberg and the sinking, there may not have been time for actual shuffling or rearranging of deck chairs as the ship sank, although we do know the band played on.

"The Titanic had wooden deck chairs and they could be rearranged according to passengers' wishes," says Karen Kamuda, vice president of the Titanic Historical Society and Titanic Museum in Indian Orchard, Mass.

"In the evening, the crewmen whose job was setting out the chairs on deck would fold them in a group and they would be tied with rope against a portion of the superstructure," Kamuda reports.

The Titanic had a total of 614 deck chairs, according to Bill Sauder , director of Titanic Research with RMS Titanic, Inc.

Since the ship hit the iceberg about midnight, the chairs were likely tied up for the night.

If you want to find a real Titanic deck chair, you can look but you can't touch:

"The only deck chairs we know of that are documented from Titanic are one we have in our collection that came from the Dartmouth Museum in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia," says Kamuda, "and another at the Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia."

"Most of the deck chairs floated away during the sinking," Sauder says, adding that rescue boats nearing the scene reported traveling through debris fields that included deck chairs.

Posted 4/6/2012 5:18 PM ET
Updated 4/7/2012 10:34 AM ET
A rare original deck chair from the Titanic, the signature artifact of the permanent Titanic exhibit at Halifax's Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.
By Gerry Lunn, Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
A rare original deck chair from the Titanic, the signature artifact of the permanent Titanic exhibit at Halifax's Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.