Pompey and Circumstances – Some Nautical Slang

Right you landlubbers, hoist up your shack-painters and stow away your skillagalee, Mr Slang is setting sail with the King’s Navy…

Gazing at the illustrations in Emily Brand’s Georgian Bawdyhouse the other week, I came across Rowlandson’s picture ‘Portsmouth Point’ (1814), cropped and captioned with allusions to Jack’s propensity for carousal with willing or at least commercially negotiable ladies. Serendip being what it is, I almost immediately re-stumbled, its glories now uncropped and used as the cover of  C. Northcote Parkinson’s study of the Royal Navy of the Napoleonic wars as portrayed in contemporary fiction: the eponymous Portsmouth Point (1948). And now, only this a.m. (‘this’ being Monday last), I find the Diary in Proust-goes-to-Pompey mode. Let me, accordingly, consider a little early nautical slang.

Compared with such uber-patriotic, even propagandistic efforts as those of ‘Bartimeus’ (Lewis Anselm da Costa Ricci) and ‘Taffrail’ (Henry Taprell), both writing for boys (young and old) and both focussed on the much-reformed Navy of 1900-1918, the texts Parkinson considers are relatively louche. Or as some might put it, true to life. True to life means, as we know, sex, and what one might term ‘Shakespearian’ humour abounded. The components of the ship herself (not the boat, I note: that appears to be a smaller appendage), or indeed the old bitch as she is sometimes termed, are a ready source. The cathead, for instance, is officially a protruding spar that keeps the anchor away from the superstructure. There are two: one per side. The bow, if I am not mistaken, is the front of the ship. (The stern being its antithesis.) The Post Captain, or, the Wooden Walls Well Manned, written in 1805 and as such the first of these works, gives us dialogues such as these; ‘Faith, Hurricane, our lady passenger is a fine girl. She has a good pair of cat-heads!’ ‘Yes, sir, she is nice and bluff about the bows.’  (Though her stern goes unremarked.)

Later we also find this: the Captain is speaking to the 1st Lieutenant, about to go below to sleep with his wife:  ‘Mr Hurricane…bear a hand and get your anchor a cock-bill. ‘ ‘It already hangs by the stopper. My shank-painter is let go; and I have roused up a good range of cable on deck.’ ‘Then let go the anchor’. Not only the anchor, there is the bobstay, ‘a rope which holds the bowsprit to the stem’. Captain Grose, writing 20 years earlier, has noted that the word had been grabbed by slang to denote ‘the frenum of a man’s yard’. Now it is the Captain’s turn for connubial pleasures: ‘Come, Cassandra […] let us descend and turn in. If I don’t ease my laniard I shall carry away my bob-stay.’

Is it just me? As I have asked before: am I terminally tainted by the job? Perhaps but not, I would suggest, in this context.  The Post Captain, perhaps better named Sailor Beware,  evokes a Britain as yet unshriven by Evangelical repression. And the jokes pointed less to smut than to that of the sailors’ being unable to escape their own jargon But the hi-jinks of Rowlandson’s Portsmouth panorama fit right in on either score.

It is not all sex, though splice, to marry, is of course based on seaborne imagery. And toplights are brought down from the masthead to stand for human eyes. Nipcheese, for the purser, is found in mainstream slang as ‘miser’; Jonathan, for an American vessel, usually refers to any United States native (though originally a New Englander) and fits in the taxonomy of John Bull, Lewis Frog and the rest. Crappo, from crapaud, a toad, is a Frenchman (substituting for the usual frog which seems still to refer primarily to the Dutch). The galoot, which is seen as echt ‘Wild West’ and meaning an awkward fool, began life afloat and meant a marine (the awkwardness implicit in his being ultimately a lubberly soldier). The etymology is lost but there are suggestion of the intensifier ker-, and Scots loot, a lout. The deliberate mispronunciation ossifer seems also to have originated on board.

A doctor is a bolus, equating him with slang’s name for his pills; his assistant is the loblolly boy, something of a jack of all trades, and based on loblolly, a form of thick gruel, sometimes used as a form of medicine. The word seems to be echoic, and underpinned by dialect’s lob, to bubble while boiling, and lolly, broth, soup or other food boiled in a pot. There is also twice-laid: this dish, which was yesterday’s leftover salt fish mashed with yams or potatoes, is proper navy for new ropes that had been re-constructed from the best yarns taken from worn-out older ones. While the officers ate well, especially in the first few weeks of a voyage when fresh supplies had yet to run out, the men had only a variety of combinations of salt meat (beef or pork and known as junk) and hard biscuits (tack), which substituted for bread, known as tommy. This could be brown tommy, a play on the army’s synonymous brown George, or soft tommy, which was white. They occasionally got shark (although the most voracious varieties had two legs and lived on land and innocent sailormen)  but spinach, prototype Popeyes notwithstanding, seemed wholly absent.

Variations on the basic ingredients created dishes such as dunderfunk, skillagalee, slumgullion, lob-dominions and dogsbody. Alcohol, in the form of grog, must have helped. The most palatable was lobscouse which Ned Ward saw as a Dutchman’s delight, and forms the basis of Liverpudlian self-celebration. As the voyage passed, the stores gained added protein, which, if one was lucky, opted to crawl away before one’s mouth closed. Banyan Day, on which the crew abstained from meat, may not have been such a deprivation. The term referred to a Banian, a Hindu merchant and the anglicised version of Gujerati vaniyo, a man of the trading caste, which caste was traditionally vegetarian.*

Modern Portsmouth, according to a website that lists the story of its pubs, boasts some 61 licensed premises. Not too bad. Jack needs his liquor. Not too bad, that is, until one checks the original list: it totals a splendid 1,132. Tempus fukkit, squire, it really does.

*For those who would like a more substantial explication of the seaborne menu (and much fascinating writing by those far more nautically equipped than myself) may I recommend Sam Llewellyn’s Marine Quarterly, available at http://www.marinequarterly.com/ where I have expatiated at length upon the topic.

image ©Gabriel Green
You can buy Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon’s more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.
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Jonathon 'Mr Slang' Green is the world's leading lexicographer of English slang. You can buy Green's Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon's more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.

8 thoughts on “Pompey and Circumstances – Some Nautical Slang

  1. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    October 11, 2012 at 09:21

    This image from yesteryear keeps repeating, Robert Newton, all crutched up, leg tucked under frock coat and that creepy parrot preening it’s feathers, Newton with one eye cocked and the other glowering saying, from among the spittle, “arrr, Jim lad, shiver me timbers, stand by yer bilges, sling yer ‘ook, give him the spot, Pugh.
    Well, perhaps he didn’t but it sounded like he did.

  2. Worm
    October 11, 2012 at 10:29

    Being a fan of O’Brien’s books I’m a sucker for all this salty seadog slang!

  3. Brit
    October 11, 2012 at 13:16

    And talking of O’Brien, who can forget in Master and Commander the use of the ‘splice’ with the very, very rude name?

    Those of a nautical disposition will enjoy this guest post last year from Sam Llewellyn, editor of the Marine Quarterly.

  4. Brit
    October 11, 2012 at 13:18

    1,132 pubs? How did they fit any houses into the place?

  5. sam@samllewellyn.com'
    October 11, 2012 at 17:41

    Charming and erudite piece, Jonathon. Reminiscent of The Yarmouth Lugger, a song whose words have left me, except for the last line of verse two, which goes: ‘I ups with her hatches/and ins me jibboom.

    The rude-word splice, by the way, is currently known as a ‘cut splice.’ In losing its ‘n’ it has also lost much of its descriptive force. And in a town with more than 1100 pubs there would be no need for houses, as nobody would be able to find them.

    • Worm
      October 11, 2012 at 18:21

      Excellent commentary samsonioni!

      Does anyone happen to know if it’s true that Deal in Kent was the place with most pubs per capita? People in Deal used to say it all the time but I can’t find much online

      • Gaw
        October 11, 2012 at 22:34

        I’ve heard that was true of Cirencester, because of its market. I suspect it’s a point of local pride claimed by an unfeasibly large number of localities.

  6. philipwilk@googlemail.com'
    October 11, 2012 at 18:58

    Another fine post and good to see the loblolly boy making his appearance. Loblolly is a term that has always puzzled me in Philip Larkin’s poem “Toads”:
    Lots of folk live on their wits:
    Lecturers, lispers,
    Losels, loblolly-men, louts –
    They don’t end as paupers…
    So loblolly men get rich? Seems unlikely, but there we go, at least Larkin didn’t add his own profession, librarian, to the chorus of Ls.

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