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shameless pleading

Queen Mary

And, unlike the Mauritania, the QE had stabilizers.

Dear Word Detective: I’m a restaurant manager in a hotel and we try to get some random trivia to our staff about our products, etc. A question came up about where the name “Queen Mary” came from, regarding a large rack on wheels used to move plates or food around, in our case in a hotel, but possibly on the boat of the same name? I can’t locate much of anything, or just too much about all other Queen Marys to sift through. — MJW.

There are indeed a lot of Queen Marys (Queens Mary?) to sift through. There have been three Queens of England named Mary, three of Scotland, one of France, a couple in Hungary, and if we start counting all the queens named Marie or Maria in the world we’ll be here all night.

The “boat” to which you refer is the Cunard Line ocean liner RMS Queen Mary, which was named after Queen Mary of the United Kingdom (1867–1953), consort of King George V. The Queen Mary was launched in 1934, and since its retirement in 1967 has been moored in Long Beach, California, where it serves as a hotel. I’ve never seen the Queen Mary except from a distance, but my sister and I did have the good fortune to accompany our parents across the Atlantic to England aboard the Queen Mary’s slightly younger and slightly larger sister ship, RMS Queen Elizabeth, in 1964. Unfortunately, the Queen Elizabeth, a noble and beautiful ship, burned and sank in Hong Kong in 1975.

In the all-too-brief postwar heyday of transatlantic ocean travel, the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary, which often passed each other mid-journey, held a position of prominence in popular culture never matched by any other form of transport since. They were floating cities, invoking luxury, style, and the lure of exotic foreign ports in a period when jet airliners and mass air travel was only just getting off the ground. They were also enormous (the Queen Mary was more than 1,000 feet long and 181 feet high) and made a handy figure of speech for anything larger than one would expect. I remember, as a child, hearing anything deemed unusually large and difficult to maneuver (a Cadillac limousine, for example) being humorously likened to the Queen Mary (“Nice car. Where do you dock her?”).

It’s this sense of “large” and “long” that underlies the use of “Queen Mary” as a term for a restaurant cart for carrying many plates. The name for the cart is actually drawn from “Queen Mary” as a slang term for a long, low road trailer used to transport aircraft during World War II, later applied to any sort of low flatbed trailer. It’s unclear when “Queen Mary” was first applied to restaurant carts, but given that the term had to make sense to the first folks who used it (i.e., they had to be at least familiar with the “Queen Mary” road trailers, if not the ship), I would guess that it was in common use, at the latest, by the 1960s.

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