‘chain-smoker’: meaning and origin

The English noun chain-smoker:
– designates a person who smokes continually, typically by lighting a cigarette from the stub of the last one smoked;
– is a loan translation from German Kettenraucher;
– originally referred to Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) 1, Prime Minister of Prussia (1862-1890), and founder and first Chancellor (1871-1890) of the German Empire. He was the driving force behind the unification of Germany in 1871.

1 Cf. How a cartoon popularised ‘to drop the pilot’.

The following, about Bismarck, was published in The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Connecticut) of Wednesday 19th March 1890:

Ever since his university days he has been known as a “chain smoker” (kettenraucher), that is, a smoker who connects his breakfast and his dinner with an endless chain of cigars, each lighted from the stump of the last one. “Happy man!” Gambetta 2 once said of him, “happy man! Beer and smoke agree with him.”

2 The French statesman Léon Gambetta (1838-1882) played a prominent role during and after the Franco-Prussian War (19th July 1870 – 28th January 1871), i.e. the war between France (under Napoléon III) and Prussia, in which Prussian troops advanced into France and decisively defeated the French at Sedan.

The paragraph published in The Hartford Courant was inspired by the text containing the earliest occurrence of the English noun chain-smoker—this text is Prince Bismarck: An Historical Biography (London: Cassell & Company, Limited, 1885), by the British author and journalist Charles Lowe (1848-1931):

He has always been a great eater, a deep drinker, and a heavy smoker. In his earlier days, indeed, he was what the Germans call a “chain-smoker”—a species of the weed-consuming genus whose morning and night is connected by a cable of cigars, each link of which is lighted at the stump of its predecessor. Bismarck has related that in this way he has, for example, smoked all the way from Cologne to Berlin, a railway journey of about ten hours. “Happy man!” once sighed Gambetta to a friend who was talking to him about the German Chancellor; “Happy man! beer and smoke agree with him.” He might have added that everything agreed with him, and that the more he drank the better he felt.

The earliest occurrence that I have found of chain-smoker used without reference to Bismarck is from an account of Russian travelling customs, by Thomas Stevens, published in The World (New York City, New York) of Monday 7th July 1890:


If the Russian is lazy, however, he is far from being dull. The number of people one meets who understand several languages is astonishing. Across the aisle from us sat an officer and a young lady companion. My attention was attracted to the latter before our train had gone far by reason of the number of cigarettes she smoked. She was almost a chain-smoker, lighting one cigarette after another from the stump of the one just consumed. The students, seeing that I was interested, made some remark about the custom of smoking as indulged in by the ladies of Russia. We talked on a while and all agreed that the habit was more likely to grow on a woman than a man, and that for a young lady to permit herself to become a cigarette fiend was a mistake. At this juncture the fair smoker could keep her countenance no longer. She had understood all that we had said. Before reaching Moscow I discovered that fully one-half the passengers in my car knew English!

And the following is from the Columbus Evening Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) of Thursday 18th September 1890:

A chain smoker is not a man who smokes chains, but one who unites his breakfast with his dinner by a chain of cigars each lighted from the stub of its predecessor.

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