Rediscovered: “Heavy Metal” — The Term

Last week I was half-reading/half-skimming John Locke’s new book The Thing’s Incredible, the Secret Origins of Weird Tales — life is short, so any clump of pages covering the ancestral background of Otis Adelbert Kline and company I let my eyes glide over like a drone in flight.

Made a note that future WT editor Farnsworth Wright did a stint in San Francisco in his youth, the family living in 3006 Steiner in Cow Hollow or the Marina (depending on where you want to set the neighborhood break) in the years before the 1906 quake and fire.

Something else caught my notice. You know how people — and the OED and related — are always trying to track down the first usages of words and terms?

Surf over and look at this bit about the term “heavy metal” — origins in chemistry, though William S. Burroughs generally gets credit for the earliest ref that might have eased the term toward the cultural moment when it nailed its rank down as the name of some specific music.

(You know, Heavy Metal. I still think Led Zeppelin ought to count as more than proto pioneers of the genre, and Blue Cheer with Vincebus Eruptum, hey, what more need be said?)

I noticed Locke quoting from an H.P. Lovecraft letter to James Ferdinand Morton for February 19, 1924 — Morton was one of the Old Gent’s most frequent correspondents and, without checking my memory, I’m pretty sure that HPL had a letter to Morton underway on his desk, left unfinished when he was taken off to the hospital where he died in 1937.

Lovecraft was commenting on the salary of Edwin Baird, the first editor for WT, vs. changes at the magazine: “I’m kinda sorry if it cuts into his incomin’ heavy metal, for I like the guy — but Fate is Fate.”

No one would have seen or noticed HPL’s dropping of the two words before Burroughs got it going in the culture, since Lovecraft’s letters didn’t show up in print until much later. But what you have here is an interim moment between “heavy metal” used in chemistry and for loud fast music —“heavy metal” used as slang for coin, loot, boodle, bundle, mazuma.

Linguistically, Lovecraft was quite the hep cat, slinging the slang like a master.

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