Painting the Forth Bridge
September 6, 2011 6:10 AM   Subscribe

Painting the Forth Bridge may be the English language's best-known summation of the daily grind. "We use it ourselves about the dictionary," muses Mary Charlton, secretary of the almost equally enormous Oxford English Dictionary, which is fame within fame.

The Forth Bridge was regarded as an engineering wonder of its time and during construction its visitors were reported by "Engineering" magazine to be simply legion, for from beginning to end there has been an extraordinary amount of interest shown in this work by all classes of society.

From the visit of their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales, August 23, 1884, down to the present day, hardly a week has passed without bringing some person of rank or distinction. Dom Pedro of Brazil, the Kings of Saxony and of Belgium, and the Shah of Shahs, lead this list, which includes, without exaggeration at any rate one-tenth of all people distinguished by rank or by scientific or social attainments.
link (giant pdf)

The 2.5 km. (1.5 mile) Forth Railway Bridge, was the world’s first major steel bridge, and remains the second longest cantilever bridge in the world. It's been immortalised in popular culture, from the photographic record of its construction via Hitchcock's 39 Steps and the original Turing Test to Grand Theft Auto. But it's metaphorical status as the epitome of the never-ending task may be in jeopardy, as after 10 years, £130m and some extraordinary feats of scaffolding, the 1.6-mile rail bridge, which connects Edinburgh to Fife, will not require repainting for some 25 years.
posted by Jakey (45 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
I think maybe you have a paid subscription to the OED. Most of us probably don't, so your first link doesn't work.
posted by koeselitz at 6:13 AM on September 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


You taunt me with your OED access sir! *shakes the fist of envy*
posted by Abiezer at 6:19 AM on September 6, 2011 [7 favorites]


I've never heard the expression before; neat.

Some East Coasters will recognize one American regional equivalent in "Time to make the donuts."
posted by Miko at 6:20 AM on September 6, 2011 [7 favorites]


That picture of the human cantilever has always struck me as a really great visualization. However, upon closer inspection, I see a problem. On the ends, they have weights hanging down. It is this force that is levering up the guy in the middle. Those weights transmit their force via tension in the ropes. In the actual bridge, those ends are attached to concrete pillars. Concrete is terrible at tension. So what is actually holding the Forth Bridge up? Is that really just concrete cladding on a steel pillar? Regular reinforced concrete?

Daedalus had a great article on saving money on painting bridges and such-like using a "paint" that combined with the steel such that it (the paint!) would "lever up" any existing paint and pull itself up the structure. So you'd just have to put the legs of the structure in some pools of the stuff and keep them topped off.
posted by DU at 6:21 AM on September 6, 2011


Interesting, but isn't "the daily grind" an even more popular expression for the daily grind?
posted by demiurge at 6:23 AM on September 6, 2011


Ah, the OED. My wife worked at Oxford University Press in the mid 90's and they were working on the third print edition then. Apparently they're up to the end of the 'R' words now.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 6:29 AM on September 6, 2011


I don't have OED access, and now the link doesn't work for me any more. Not sure how I got there now. Odd. Here's a Cambridge reference instead.
posted by Jakey at 6:29 AM on September 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


@GallonOfAlan – in March that had got to 'Ryvita', and they only started at the letter M! Estimated date of completion is 2037.

PS – free access to the OED can be gained with virtually any UK library card
posted by mattn at 6:35 AM on September 6, 2011


If we're talking about the Forth Bridge,we have to mention Iain Banks' The Bridge.
posted by Segundus at 6:40 AM on September 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


When I went to school in the Bay Area this idiom was referenced as, "painting the Golden Gate Bridge", i.e. it was a task that was never finished--by the time the guys got to the north end it was time to begin painting on the south end all over again.
posted by bukvich at 6:42 AM on September 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


3. trans. to paint the Forth Bridge and variants [in allusion to the huge task of maintaining the painted surfaces of the railway bridge over the Firth of Forth, central Scotland] : used in similative phrases as the type of a never-ending or arduous task.

[1901 Portsmouth (New Hampshire) Herald 16 July 3/1 The Forth Bridge is constantly being repainted.]
1955 Times 2 Mar. 7/1 One of its main tasks is to keep the authoritative dictionary of the French language up to date, and this task, like painting the Forth bridge, is never finished.
1981 N.Y. Times (Nexis) 4 Oct. ii. 1/6 Mr. Edgar compared his task to painting the Forth Bridge: every time a version was finished it needed re-doing from the start.
1995 Daily Tel. (Nexis) 25 Mar. 2 He looked like a man beginning to paint the Forth Bridge on his own. ‘It is a bit of a lonely life, and it's very hard work.’
posted by Ahab at 6:43 AM on September 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Under the heading "Phrases" and with some formatting that got lost in the.. typing..
posted by Ahab at 6:46 AM on September 6, 2011


@Segundus

I want a film of that book.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 6:55 AM on September 6, 2011


Now the Forth Bridge similative phrase is no longer valid, I suggest a new, 21st Century version that reflects both this post-Dawsons Creek era of dismal personal insecurity, while retaining the meaning of a never-ending or arduous task.

"It's like my life, you know?"
posted by TheAlarminglySwollenFinger at 7:02 AM on September 6, 2011


From Wikipedia, a lovely photo of the Forth Bridge. Yep, that there would take a lot of painting.
posted by mark7570 at 7:08 AM on September 6, 2011


My dad used to say "let not paint the Forth bridge" and we all I suspect, or me anyway just assumed the Forth bridge was some metaphysical "fourth bridge" like we were meant to get what the first second and third bridges were.
posted by the noob at 7:09 AM on September 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


"let's paint the fourth bridge when we come to it"
posted by DU at 7:10 AM on September 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


GallonOfAlan: Ah, the OED. My wife worked at Oxford University Press in the mid 90's and they were working on the third print edition then.

In the nineties, you say? Just a second: Is the Forth in the Third in the Twenty-first?
 
posted by Herodios at 7:18 AM on September 6, 2011


I heard the phrase "painting the Golden Gate Bridge" growing up on the east coast but I've never heard the trope used with any of the famous NYC bridges.
posted by octothorpe at 7:20 AM on September 6, 2011


Where? Here
posted by Mister Bijou at 7:39 AM on September 6, 2011


Some East Coasters will recognize one American regional equivalent in "Time to make the donuts"

Ha! That was the first thing I thought of, too!

For whatever reason, it never occurred to me that it was a regionalism until some time in my mid-20's.

I was living in Portland (OR), and was pretty seriously dating a woman who had lived her entire life in Nebraska, Arizona and Oregon-- the first time I'd had a relationship of any significance with someone not born and raised in the Northeast.

After we'd be dating for over a year, she finally asked me what the hell "donuts" actually meant, and what we used them for at the studio.

It turns out that for the longest time she had been assuming donuts must be some industry nickname for a special tool used in the production of stop motion animation, because of course every morning at 7AM when I left the apartment to go to work, I'd mutter "time to make the donuts."

When I explained, it turned out that she hadn't even heard of Dunkin Donuts. I was... nonplussed. I mean, I hadn't seen any Dunkin' Donuts in Portland, but I just sort of assumed that everyone at least knew what it was. I mean, how could you not? It's Dunkin Donuts for chrissakes.
posted by dersins at 7:54 AM on September 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


See also Albert's Bridge by Tom Stoppard.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:21 AM on September 6, 2011


I had no idea Dunkin Donuts was regional, and I’m well past my 20’s. I grew up in AZ and I’m pretty sure they were there.
posted by bongo_x at 8:24 AM on September 6, 2011


This was a nice browse, pity about that first link though.

Mind you, I did go through all the links just to see if it was Brunel's work :)
posted by infini at 8:27 AM on September 6, 2011


er, link for Brunel I'm such a fanboi
posted by infini at 8:29 AM on September 6, 2011


The GTA wiki doesn't mention why there's an homage to the Fourth Bridge in San Andreas, but I'd guess it's because the original GTA development team saw it every day on their way to work.
posted by rh at 8:36 AM on September 6, 2011


DU: "Those weights transmit their force via tension in the ropes. In the actual bridge, those ends are attached to concrete pillars. Concrete is terrible at tension. So what is actually holding the Forth Bridge up? Is that really just concrete cladding on a steel pillar? Regular reinforced concrete?"

The cables are generally not attached to the concrete where they interesect - either the cables, or mounting points, go *through* the concrete and are connected on the back side - thus, using the compressive strength rather than tensile.
posted by notsnot at 8:57 AM on September 6, 2011


demiurge: Interesting, but isn't "the daily grind" an even more popular expression for the daily grind?

And isn't "Sisyphean task" an even older popular expression for a similar thing?
posted by Petrot at 9:09 AM on September 6, 2011


*shakes the fist of envy*

"Fist of Envy" is the name of my Frankie Goes To Hollywood cover band.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 9:24 AM on September 6, 2011


Not to overcount the nuanced beanplate, but imho Sisyphean task implies that is impossible to complete because of setbacks and delays and obstructions whereas painting the Forth Bridge is a huge, complex, time consuming task but it will eventually get done.

Sisyphus rolled a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again every night.

Cleaning the Aegean stables may be a closer match to the concept.
posted by infini at 9:29 AM on September 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


From the visit of their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales, August 23, 1884, down to the present day, hardly a week has passed without bringing some person of rank or distinction.

Not only do I feel culturally illiterate$ for never hearing this expression before, apparently I am not a person of any rank or distinction, either. It's already gloomy and raining outside, do I need to have my cosmic insignificance impressed upon me before I've even eaten lunch today?

*datapoint: I'm from the Southeast US.
posted by misha at 9:42 AM on September 6, 2011


imho Sisyphean task implies that is impossible to complete because of setbacks and delays and obstructions whereas painting the Forth Bridge is a huge, complex, time consuming task but it will eventually get done.

I don't think that's what Sisyphean connotes at all. Setbacks and delays might stall a task, but they don't cause work completed earlier to have to be done over again.

In accordance with the boulder story, a Sisyphean task is one in which work you have previously done is undone and you must constantly start over, repeating the same task rather than moving on to the next one. Cooking and laundry come to mind: each day you do more of this work, and each day the work done previously is eroded. As Wikipedia interprets it, "pointless or interminable activities are often described as Sisyphean."

The bridge painting qualifies as Sisypean quite exactly, in that as new work is being done, yesterday's work is simultanously being undone by weather and wear.

It did occur to me, though, that this is a labor question more than anything. If you have sufficient painters, you could get the whole thing painted at once and then work on something else for a few years before needing a recoat. Clearly that's not the priority for the organization of work, though.
posted by Miko at 9:45 AM on September 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


> Some East Coasters will recognize one American regional equivalent in "Time to make the donuts."

In my long gone days of drafting slavery in architect's offices, drawing iteration after iteration of school floor plans, my version of it was, "Time to move the toilets." Seemed much more apropos at the time.
posted by yoga at 10:09 AM on September 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


The key is to construct the bridge in pieces, each piece being testable. Describe the solution. And get used to postfix notation.
posted by clvrmnky at 10:13 AM on September 6, 2011 [3 favorites]



"Sisyphean task"

Related:
  Death March (in project management)
  Death March book by Edward Yourdon
any of several types of pathologic projects. . . such as being gruelingly overworked for ill-founded reasons on a project that is obviously at high risk of bad outcome. . . a project that is ultimately successful but involves a home stretch of unsustainable overwork. . . a project that any intelligent, informed member can see is destined to fail, but that members are nevertheless forced to act out by their superiors.
  Groundhog Day
[Influenced by the 1993 movie] In popular culture, the phrase "Groundhog Day" has entered common use as a reference to an unpleasant situation that continually repeats, or seems to.

In the military, referring to unpleasant, unchanging, repetitive situations as “Groundhog Day” was widespread very soon after the movie’s release in February 1993. . . Fourteen years after the movie was released, "Groundhog Day" was noted as American military slang for any day of a tour of duty in Iraq.
   A Murphean Law
There's never time to do it right,
but there's always time to do it over.
Related, but none of which quite captures the exact meaning of "painting the [name of large bridge] bridge". Perhaps what comes closest is

   Mother's Law
Father works from sun to sun but
Mother's work is never done.
 
posted by Herodios at 10:19 AM on September 6, 2011


A laconic man, with a close-cropped head, bulldog chin and broad freckled hands erupting from an orange dazzle-suit, Muir is not blasé about his legendary workplace.

I wish the reporters in my local paper wrote sentences like this. :)
posted by Celsius1414 at 10:30 AM on September 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


apparently I am not a person of any rank or distinction
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The man's the gowd for a' that.
posted by Abiezer at 10:31 AM on September 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Of all the colours, she had to choose one that I see at work every day, but that's what she liked," he says. "It's lucky I've got a big telly to watch so I don't have to look at it.
David Leafe joined the painting crew on the bridge.
posted by rongorongo at 10:43 AM on September 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I had no idea Dunkin Donuts was regional, and I’m well past my 20’s.

I didn't learn they were regional until my 30's, when my brother put a french press coffeemaker and a pound of Dunkin' Donuts Coffee on his wedding registry. (He and my sister in law were living in LA then, and feeling deprived.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:13 PM on September 6, 2011


Painting the [Sydney] Harbour Bridge.
posted by rory at 2:25 PM on September 6, 2011


I didn't learn they were regional until my 30's,

I didn't learn that either, and the way I learned was by coming across a list in some food magazine of "top 10 mom & pop donut spots" in some state or other. I was like "There are dedicated donut shops that aren't Dunkin Donuts?"

I really grew up thinking that if you wanted anything other than glazed, cinnamon sugar or plain - like you could find in any city bakery - Dunkin Donuts was the only purveyor and had, perhaps, invented all the other kinds of donut.
posted by Miko at 2:41 PM on September 6, 2011


also see The Tay Bridge Disaster, the Worst Poem Ever.
posted by camdan at 4:32 AM on September 7, 2011


I agree with comments that the phrase in question is used to describe any tedious task which on completion inevitably needs to be started all over again. i'ts not really about 'the daily grind'.

btw: only tourists and non-locals refer to it as the Forth RAILWAY Bridge. It was there first, so it got dibs on 'The Forth Bridge' a long time ago. it's ok to call the other bridge next to it the 'Forth Road Bridge' though.

\pedant ;)
posted by alan2001 at 5:00 AM on September 7, 2011


In the actual bridge, those ends are attached to concrete pillars. Concrete is terrible at tension. So what is actually holding the Forth Bridge up?

From this link:
The outside double-cantilever shoreward ends carry weights of about 1000 tonnes to counter-balance half the weight of the suspended span and live load.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:37 AM on September 7, 2011


And check out the old photo of a guy sitting in the middle and being supported in that unbelievable way - really helps in figuring out how the bridge's structure works. (At least it did for me)
posted by infini at 10:45 AM on September 7, 2011


« Older blind is a short film (5:17 - in Japanese w/ Engli...  |  The Man in The Red Bandana... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments