Thursday, 25 September 2014

Derrick - Oil Well & Good

An oil well and derrick


Noun. Early 17th century.
[Derrick, the surname of a noted London hangman floruit 1600.]

1 obsolete. Capitalised as Derrick. A hangman; hanging; the gallows. E17-L18

2 A contrivance for hoisting or moving heavy weights. M18-M19

2(a) NAUTICAL. A tackle used at the outer quarter of the mizzen-mast. M-L18

2(b) A spar or boom set up obliquely, with its head steadied by guys,
and fitted with tackle, originally used on board ship. M18

2(c) A kind of crane with a jib or adjustable arm pivoted to the foot of the central post, deck, or floor. M19

3 A framework erected over an oil-well or similar boring, to support the drilling apparatus. M19

A derrick crane
The Wonder Book of Engineering Wonders (1931)
Well knock me down with a barrel o' crude! It seems that for the past thirty years or so, I've been labouring under a cloud of confusion as to what a derrick is. Specifically, what I thought is a derrick isn't, and what it's not is what I thought it was. It's all very confusing ...

So, firstly, let's get what a derrick isn't out of the way: it's not one of those odd, slightly creepy bowing constructions that you see tirelessly pumping away in deserts. Those are oil pumps, and they're variously called pumpjacks, sucker rod pumps, grasshopper pumps, Big Texans, thirsty birds, horsehead pumps and nodding donkeys. They are not, however, called derricks, even though many of you (including me) thought they were.

So what's a derrick? Broadly speaking, it's one of two things: a type of crane, or the framework that supports a drilling operation. Conveniently, both types are almost as recognisable as the nodding donkeys we thought were called derricks, and so from this day forth there need no longer be any confusion.

This is not a derrick
(photo from
But why is a derrick called a derrick? Well this it where it gets a bit dark, because Thomas Derrick was a notable and enthusiastic executioner in England during the Elizabethan period. Nothing if not diligent, Derrick executed over 3,000 souls during his tenure as the capital's capital carnifex, and was rather innovative in how he did it; whereas any old hangman can sling a rope over a beam, Derrick devised a system of pulleys to gleefully winch his charges aloft. It is the similarity between his pulley system and the framework he used to support it that gives his name to the drilling towers and dockyard cranes.

As for the modern name Derek, this is a variant of Derrick, and can also be spelled Derreck, Derick, Derrok and (for the especially pretentious) Deryck; its origin is the German name Theodoric, meaning 'ruler of the people'. Despite this regal origin, however, it has come to be universally regarded as a very silly name, rhyming as it does with such unsavoury words as sick, tick, hick and ick (as well as a few others that shall not be printed here). Quite possibly, it was Thomas Derrick's silly name that compelled him to be such as ardent executioner, as no one had ever taken him seriously in his life before.

Self-portrait of some bloke called 'Derek'

Did you ever confuse a nodding donkey with a derrick?

Do you know a Derek that's a bit of a donkey?

Do please bore us with your most well-thought-out comments in the box below.


  1. My brother is called Derek and no one takes him seriously.

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