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Mr. Molotov's legacy

In a Baltimore Sun article tomorrow about a rash of firebombings around town, we refer to Molotov cocktails, and I begin to wonder whether we should think about retiring the term.

One reason the rising generations don’t read newspapers is that the texts look dated in language and references, and I am highly doubtful that those rising generations have much of a sense of the effervescent Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s foreign minister.

It was the Finns, attempting to repel Soviet troops in 1939 who first called their improvised incendiary devices—typically gasoline in a bottle with a cloth fuse jammed in the neck—Molotov cocktails. The term remained popular in 1956, when similar improvised devices destroyed hundreds of Soviet tanks during the Hungarian uprising. In one of history’s little symmetries, Franco’s Fascists had used the same tactic effectively against Loyalist tanks while moving on Madrid.

It may be all right to use the term without any historical resonance. We don’t need to know who Captain Boycott and Dr. Alzheimer were to understand the words derived from their names. But Molotov cocktail seems different somehow in its sardonic allusion to the deservedly defunct Soviet imperium. Musty.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:27 PM | | Comments (21)


But is there an alternative term?

Yes, what a nasty chap he was. Over here in the UK, by the way, where we have altogether too much experience of these devices, we call them petrol bombs these days, allowing Comrade Molotov to rest, no doubt, in that peace Khrushchev accused him of sabotaging. But I don't suppose "petrol bomb" is an available term in AmE. Gas bomb, perhaps?

Agree that Molotov cocktail sounds dated. Boycott has become a lowercase common noun, and Alzheimer, like many others, is no more than the name of a disease to readers.
BTW, this is the kind of editing/writing advice that needs a wider audience than just paying subscribers in Baltimore!

"...Over here in the UK, by the way, where we have altogether too much experience of these devices, we call them petrol bombs..."

The last thing the paper needs to do is provide the ingredient list to the next batch of miscreants (or their tutor who may read the paper to them). Not even the prescriptivists can justify that!

I think that "Molotov Cocktail" has become fairly generic. I may be wrong - god knows, I've been wrong before! - but I do agree with your general position. Part of the problem is simply generational. If I ask a younger person, "Where were you during 9/11?, " the response might be: "My mother said I was still at pre-school." We tend to forget these problems as we grow older. I think they call it old-timers' disease.

Oh lord, MrRational, even I, whose police file would give today's miscreant a fit of the giggles, know how to make a Molotov cocktail.

I'd hate to lose "Molotov cocktail," especially since the replacement would likely be something colorless. "Gas bomb" wouldn't work, anyway -- most readers would probably think it means a bomb that delivers some kind of poison gas.

Actually, Picky, we already have gas bombs here in the States. Just watch the bean eating scene in "Blazing Saddles."

Tim: you are somewhat less refined than I had supposed. Disgraceful! (I nearly said "less airy-fairy", but I suppose that might be misunderstood.) And you realise, Tim, they're gonna make people pay for this stuff?

Somewhat less refined than you had supposed, Picky? I hope you have not been making assumptions on the mere fact that I happen to wear a black muu muu at work!

As for making people pay for this stuff Picky, I figure our musings would be cheap at twice the present going rate.


Did you feel safer when the police spokesman characterized the spate of bombings as "random"?

That would be "non-targeted", opening all of us to the whim of a bomb-thrower, instead of a carefully selected enemy.

The first comment hit the nail on the head. The term "Molotov cocktail" has persisted because it's useful. I had never heard of Comrade Molotov before reading this article, but I knew exactly what a Molotov cocktail was.

"Petrol bomb" may work in the UK, but I agree with the commenters who've discussed why the American equivalent, "gas bomb," will never catch on.

We already have IEDs (improvised explosive devices), so maybe we could call Molotov cocktails IIDs - improvised incendiary devices. Still, not as catchy or useful, and in some contexts, IID is already understood as "ignition interlock device."

I don't think the fact that most people have never heard of Vyacheslav Molotov requires that we retire the term "Molotov cocktail." And its usefulness justifies keeping it.


Holy sartorial 'huevos', Batman!


A black muu muu, indeed!

Hmm......... a dude wearing a muu muu in the workplace? Pretty out there.......... not that there's anything wrong w/ that. (Echo's of a certain cliche rejoinder on the popular sitcom, "Seinfeld")

(As "Seifeld"s Kosmo Kramer , sans 'undies', once rejoiced,"Jerry, I'm out there, and I'm lovin' it!" )

I say to each his (or her) own. Whatever rocks your boat. Life's far too short to worry inordinately over surface impressions, although at least in the workplace, a certain modicum of understatement, and appropriateness is generally require. Just sayin'.

And here I thought the in-studio (unwritten) dress code for the creative employees in our 'Hollyweird' animation industry was pretty casual/ liberal, w/ many guys opting for grungy T-shirts, shorts, and sneakers for most of the work year (few shirts and ties), while resorting to long trousers, or well-worn jeans, and hoodie-sweats when the daytime winter temps out here in L.A. dipped into the bone-chilling 50˚F range. (Brrrrrrrrrrrr!)

Call us a bunch of slobs, but we were damn talented, and largely happy, creatively fulfilled, and well-paid slobs. It was an easy way to differentiate us from the spiffy, generally uptight, neurotic 'suits'----code for upper and middle management. Not that all the 'suits', were 'stuffed shirts', or unapproachable. But I'm digressing.

Getting back to Prof. McI. topic-at-hand; when I first read the suggested possible alternative, or more up-to-date term, "gas bomb", for the now rather dated, pre-Cold War Molotov cocktail appellation, I couldn't help but conjure up the image of a windbaggy-bunkum-spewing,'incendiary' politician. But perhaps 'gas bag', rather than 'gas bomb', would be more fitting. Never mind.

As the wise and witty Picky would say, "they're gonna make people pay for this stuff?" HA!


P.S.: ----Curiously, my Captcha words for this post are: "oreopedi part".

Say it ain't so, Gertrude. An online info site devoted solely to that iconic B&W confection, that universally loved scrumptious three-layered cookie and cream-filled treat-----the OREO?

(Well folks, technically there should be an "a" at the end of "oreopedi" for this admittedly lame gag to work, but what-the-hey........ i gave it my best shot.)


I think another name for a black muu muu is judge's robe.

Thank you, LL. I hesitated to speak up for fear of looking like I was calling out our dear friend Alex!



Laura Lee, I totally forgot our Tim was a member of the bar; an attorney as it were. Or perchance a judge?

As I 'speak' I'm continuing to wipe the yolk of embarrassment off my beet-red visage. And here, w/ Tim's wearing the black muu muu to work, I naively thought our adventuresome Tim was just paying a sartorial homage to the great Mama Cass Elliot, or Charm City's own most famous pop culture charmer, the incredible Divine; although i should have gotten the hint from the "black" muu muu, specifically. Both Cass Elliot and Divine eschewed black 'for shew', and largely gravitated to the more flashy, often day-glo range w/ big and bold organic patterning. Quintessential muu muu fare.

Tim, thanks for not ratting me out on my unfortunate blunder. Laura Lee always has a most gentle way of setting the record straight.

Court's adjourned!


Bringing you completely up to speed, Alex, I am no longer a licensed attorney since they yanked my bar card once I took the bench. They promise to give it back if I stop adjudicating for a living.


P.S. Ha! One of my captcha words is "Law"!


Thanks for that personal lawyer/ judge clarification.

Hmm......... so does that mean, technically, you're a black muu muu wearing 'bench warmer'? (Just joshing!)

Could that kind of lame attempt at a satiric zinger get me thrown onto the mercy of the court for gross defamation of a judge? I'll plead the 5th on that one. HA!

My younger brother back in Canada is a very long-lapsed former lawyer, who sadly hasn't practiced in eons. An early unsatisfying foray into 'storefront' divorce-and-family law just a few years after graduating w/ honors from Toronto's York University, unfortunately permanently soured him on the whole profession; although the practice of law offers such a wide-ranging array of fine lawyering options, and career opportunities, from corporate, tax, entertainment, estate , criminal, patent law, et al, my brother just opted to give up the ghost. Not a cheery tale, but yet a real-life missed adventure, nonetheless.

Tim, do you think you could handle those traditional flouncy powdered white wigs still worn by presiding British judges? Well, I don't mean literally handle, but more like wear the darn things?

Hmm....... I wonder if Judge Judy wears a wig?

Clearly, not as much good old pomp and ceremony here on this side of The Pond.

Order in the court!


Alex, Baltimore claims Mama Cass as well as Divine. Charm City, indeed, Hon.

I once asked a Finn why they called it a Molotov cocktail if they were the ones that invented it. Shouldn't it be named after something Finnish, I thought. So why did they name it Molotov cocktail? "Because it was a present for Molotov," the Finn said. Good answer.

As for me, I'm in my late 20s and Molotov cocktail doesn't sound musty to me. If anything, I agree that it's more colorful than any alternative, whether you know who Molotov was or not.

Joe McVeigh,

Hmm......... "Sibelius shake" has a kind of catchy ring to it, no? Has some alliterative punch, as well.

It clearly satisfies the Finnish content aspect, although it lacks any real historical context, or tie-in----- no nefarious international intrigue at the diplomactic level.

Although perhaps some of Romantic Finnish composer Jean Sibelius' harsher critics of his day might have argued that his often somber, melancholy, moody classical musical compositions 'bombed' on occasion. (Groan)

Nothing worse than a past-shelf-life, "musty" Molotov cocktail, I say. HA!



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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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