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Recent President Trump usage of the expression rocket man has called to mind the famous Elton John's homonymous song from the early '70s.

It appears that only the ODO, among the main dictionaries, gives a detailed definition of rocket man:

  • 1) A soldier responsible for firing rockets. Now chiefly historical.

  • 2) Chiefly Science Fiction. A person who pilots a rocket, especially into space.

  • 3) An expert in rocket science; a person who designs or builds rockets.

The dictionary also says that the origin is from the mid 18th century and that the earliest use was found in The London Magazine.

Checking with Google Books, the expression appears to be from the mid-'40s, where there is a considerable spike in usage, apparently higher than those of later decades.

Trump usage and the meaning in Elton John's song refer to the third and second meaning cited above, but what about the first, original meaning? I could not find 18th century usages that refers to the first definition.

Questions:

  • is the original meaning of "rocket man" the one suggested by the above dictionary and does it date back from the mid-1700?

  • what made the expression popular in the mid-40s? Is it connected to science fiction movies of those years for instance?

  • I'm sure the term has been re-invented several times, but I've always assumed that it mainly refers to the sci-fi image of a man with a rocket pack strapped to his back. This would easily go back to the 1800s, but I'm doubtful that it was an idiom in the 1700s. – Hot Licks Sep 18 '17 at 19:54
  • Do note that "rocket" was a popular term back in the 1800s. There were apparently trains named "Rocket", a "Daily Rocket" newspaper, et al. A reporter for the Rocket might well have been referred to as "Rocket man". – Hot Licks Sep 18 '17 at 20:00
  • Some uses from the 1800s seem to refer to a person responsible for shooting off fireworks at public events. I assume that's a variation of the first definition cited in the question. – RaceYouAnytime Sep 18 '17 at 20:21
  • One of my very fave songs ever! The lyrics, and a cute video, are here: songfacts.com/detail.php?lyrics=2892 – Jelila Jan 18 '18 at 12:03
  • One of my very fave songs ever! The lyrics, and a cute video, are here: songfacts.com/detail.php?lyrics=2892 evocative - as in Bowie's Space Oddity we see/hear echoes of the man going to work, missing his family, as so many do every day. Only, in a space context - the space explorations Apollo etc being concurrent at the time... – Jelila Jan 18 '18 at 12:11
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The early use from The London Magazine cited in ODO can be found online here under the name Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer, which is the same periodical.

8000 Seapoys, 20000 horse, and 20 pieces of cannon, besides matchlock and rocket-men, composed their army.

  • 1764 - The London magazine; or, Gentleman's monthly intelligencer · 1732–1785.

This is also the earliest citation provided in the OED, which presents the same three definitions as ODO.

The second sense is first attested by the OED in a science fiction context in 1931.

Mars, Venus and Jupiter had been visited by Rocket men... Amazing things were learned by Rocket men who went to Venus.

The piece appears to have been syndicated in various newspapers under the heading "Uncle Ray's Corner." The complete text can be seen behind a newspapers.com paywall here in The Greenville News (Greenville, SC) 10 Aug. 4/6

Other instances of the phrase "rocket man" or "rocket men" appear in other editions of "Uncle Ray's Corner."

To reach the planet, rocket men would need to allow for the motion of Mars.

The author appears to be Ramon Peyton Coffman, a children's science fiction writer best known for this syndicated daily column.

A biographical passage from The University of Wisconsin's alumni magazine in 1943 offers a description of his work. It describes him as "the best known and most widely read children's author in America," which, if true, might serve as an argument that his use was influential among his contemporary science fiction writers.

For 17 years Mr. Coffman has been writ- ing his column for readers from 8-16 years of age, and today he is the best known and most widely read children's author in America. In more than five and a half million homes in America "Uncle Ray" is a daily visitor, a counselor and friend as he writes of science, history, travel and great men. His columns have a dual purpose-to entertain and to teach his young readers.

Answers

To answer the questions, it does appear that the original meaning dates from the mid-1700's and holds the meaning described in ODO definition 1. It also seems likely that the popularity of the term in the 1940s was indeed a result of uses in science fiction.

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