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the hydrogen derivatives
Posted: 04 December 2016 10:31 AM   [ Ignore ]
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You’ll see him everywhere there’s anything doing. Yes, I suppose he’s a type. Dress clothes every evening; knows the ropes; calls every policeman and waiter in town by their first names. No; he never travels with the hydrogen derivatives. You generally see him alone or with another man.”

That snippet is from a short story by O. Henry (William Sydney Porter, 1862-1910), an AE speaker known for his clever stories.

It seems that the hydrogen derivatives are a group or class of people.  My guess is that he means either females or those
without much social status.  That’s pure speculation.  I can’t find other uses of the phrase.
The story Man about town, was published in 1906.

Your guesses will likely be better than mine, or at least better informed.

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Posted: 04 December 2016 01:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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That’s pretty mystifying, and the only suggestions that come to mind are real stretches.  Hydrogen compounds (derivatives, in a sense) of several nonmetals have names ending in -ane or -ine (borane, phosphine, methane, silane), which are vaguely suggestive of female names. Or, hydrogen compounds of nonmetals farther to the right of the periodic table (sulfur, fluorine, chlorine, etc.) are acids.  Acid = sour = tart?  As I said, these are real stretches.

It occurred to me that, especially at that date, “hydrogen derivative” might suggest “town gas"(coal gas), typically made from reacting hot coal or coke with water to produce a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and (sometimes) methane, used for lighting and heating in areas where natural gas was not readily available. (This is the basis of suicide by sticking one’s head in the oven: if one blew out the pilot light and turned on the gas, the carbon monoxide would be poisonous.) But I couldn’t find any evidence that “hydrogen derivative” was a common way of referring to town gas, nor come up with any obvious connection to women (apart from rhyming slang).

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Posted: 04 December 2016 04:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Because hydrogen appears in so many different kinds of compounds (hydrides, hydroxides, acids, alcohols, sugars, ketones, amines, paraffins ... srsly, it gets around, it occurs in literally millions of described compounds), it is uncommon to encounter the phrase “hydrogen derivatives” in a chemistry context.

To me, the text implies that hydrogen derivatives are women: “No; he never travels with the hydrogen derivatives. You generally see him alone or with another man”.

So what’s the connection between women and hydrogen? Two thoughts:

1/

The story starts as follows: “It took me two weeks to find out what women carry in dress suit cases. And then I began to ask why a mattress is made in two pieces. This serious query was at first received with suspicion because it sounded like a conundrum. I was at last assured that its double form of construction was designed to make lighter the burden of woman, who makes up beds. I was so foolish as to persist, begging to know why, then, they were not made in two equal pieces; whereupon I was shunned.”

So we start by discussing that something is made in lighter pieces so that it can be lifted by a woman: then we (possibly) describe women as hydrogen derivatives. What would the average reader have known about hydrogen in the waking years of the 20th century? That it is flammable, and that it is lighter than air. I mean I am reaching on tippy-toes here. Women ... lightness ... hydrogen.

2/

O Henry was a pharmacist before he was a writer and it is possible that hydrogen had different connotations for him than it would for the average reader. Here are two other examples of the use of “hydrogen” by O Henry.

In No Story
“I tell you, she’s a beauty that would take the hydrogen out of all the peroxides in the world.”
Such a strange metaphor. Clunky but baffling.

In The Higher Abdication
“The saloon was small, and in its atmosphere the odours of meat and drink struggled for the ascendancy. The pig and cabbage wrestled with hydrogen and oxygen.”
This one is more straightforward: the food smells are competing with alcohol smells.

He makes fairly frequent reference to peroxide (meaning hydrogen peroxide as a hair changer or perhaps a tooth whitener).
Nemesis and the Candy Man
“I’ve been up against peroxide and make-up boxes before”.

Strictly Business
“Chorus girls are inseparable from peroxide, Panhards and Pittsburg.”

The Gold that Glittered
“but you mean a peroxide Juno, don’t you?”

So perhaps by hydrogen derivatives, O Henry just means a peroxide blonde woman, which would carry certain connotations in that time.

P.S. “odour”? Noah Webster must have been rolling in his grave.

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Posted: 05 December 2016 05:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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So perhaps by hydrogen derivatives, O Henry just means a peroxide blonde woman, which would carry certain connotations in that time.

Excellent research, and your conclusion seems plausible to me.

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Posted: 05 December 2016 07:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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My compliments on your post, OP. Sounds good to me.

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Posted: 05 December 2016 08:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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For me, a suicide blonde (dyed by her own hand) will henceforth forever be a hydrogen derivative. Good work, OP Tipping.

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Posted: 05 December 2016 09:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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When the phrase “hydrogen derivative” is used in chemistry, it typically means that hydrogen has been added to some starting material.  Although on this basis hydrogen peroxide could be regarded as a hydrogen derivative of oxygen, this interpretation doesn’t really work for me since the most obvious hydrogen derivative of oxygen would be water, and peroxide differs from water in having LESS hydrogen (per oxygen).  Also, water is typically a reference point in chemistry, to which other substances are compared, as in acidity or basicity, specific heat, specific gravity, and so on.  It would make more sense to call hydrogen peroxide an “oxygen derivative”.

The fact that Porter was knowledgeable in chemistry (a licensed pharmacist by age 19, although the requirements were less rigorous then) makes this interpretation less, rather than more, plausible to me.

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Posted: 06 December 2016 03:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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The fact that Porter was knowledgeable in chemistry (a licensed pharmacist by age 19)

Porter received his license after working for two years in his uncle’s drugstore. With such a background, he may have known some chemistry --- or again, he may not have known a great deal. As Dr. Techie suggests, requirements may not have been as rigorous, then, as now; they may also not have been as rigorous in Greensboro, N.C., as elsewhere in the U.S.A. --- and very possibly, not as exacting as the standards of Dr. Techie himself, which as we all know, are sometimes uncomfortably high.

(There are always more than one ways of acquiring a licence. In my country, for example, the State Controller’s Report told the story, a few years ago, of the son of a Professor at one of the country’s most prestigious medical schools, who having failed his High School matriculation exams three times running, was provided by the school with fake exam results, enabling him to enroll as a student in the medical school. After this, of course (the student’s teachers all depending on his Daddy for their own advancement), he would pass all subsequent exams with flying colours, emerging finally as Dr. 007, licenced to kill. (If my countrymen are lucky enough, he’ll be practicing in the USA by now ;-). There are always more than one ways of acquiring a licence. Do I take a jaundiced view? Yes. Totally.)

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Posted: 06 December 2016 06:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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The fact that Porter was knowledgeable in chemistry (a licensed pharmacist by age 19, although the requirements were less rigorous then) makes this interpretation less, rather than more, plausible to me.

Aside from what lionello said, if Porter had been the kind of person who allowed the strict requirements of chemical nomenclature to put the kibosh on a good phrase, he wouldn’t have been O. Henry.

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Posted: 06 December 2016 07:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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But I dont’ see that “hydrogen derivative” is any more felicitous as a phrase than “oxygen derivative”, and the latter would make more sense (chemically) in referring to a peroxide blonde.  And they both seem out of place in the mouth of a reporter.

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Posted: 06 December 2016 07:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Is the thinking then that this phrase is original to O.Henry? If so his contemporary readers must have been as puzzled as we are.

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Posted: 06 December 2016 08:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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My searching turns up no other instances except this specific usage by O. Henry and literal chemical uses.  It’s possible that this was more widely used slang at the time that has managed not to be otherwise preserved in digitally searchable documents, but like you I suspect it might have been a mot that the author found bon but the readers not so much.

edit:fixed italics

[ Edited: 06 December 2016 02:45 PM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 06 December 2016 01:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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A reasonable assessment, It seems to me.

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Posted: 07 December 2016 06:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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But I dont’ see that “hydrogen derivative” is any more felicitous as a phrase than “oxygen derivative”, and the latter would make more sense (chemically) in referring to a peroxide blonde.

The point is that “hydrogen derivative” would bring hydrogen peroxide to mind, whereas “oxygen derivative” wouldn’t.

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Posted: 07 December 2016 08:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Fair enough.  I still don’t buy it, but that’s a valid argument.

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Posted: 07 December 2016 05:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Hey ... he refers to alcohols by mentioning oxygen and hydrogen because they make up the hydroxyl group (which all alcohols have).

-OH

O Henry

lol

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