Swearing is a form of art. And if there were ever an occupation associated with the art form, it’s probably the profession of the sailor (with honorable mention going to truckers and pirates). But beyond the stereotype of the crude, foulmouthed seaman — and common expressions like “cursing like a sailor on a drunken holiday” — there’s more to the association. Sailors have a special relationship with swearing, and centuries ago, they helped coin and popularize some of the most commonly used profanity in the English language, expressions like “son of a bitch” that made the leap from the maritime to the mainstream as a part of a colorful and much broader cultural legacy.
As historian Paul A. Gilje chronicles in Swear Like a Sailor: Maritime Culture in America, 1750 to 1850, the figure of the sailor, or jack-tar, as the English originally referred to the seamen of the Royal Navy, evolved steadily in the American imagination during the early years of the nation. And jack-tars’ prominence in the literature and the culture of the time represents the growing importance of maritime trade. While today we tend to consider the expansion of the Western frontier as vital to the early American pioneering spirit, for most of the nation’s early years that wasn’t really the case. “America was a maritime country,” says Gilje, professor emeritus of history at the University of Oklahoma. “The frontier was not where young men went … it was the ocean.”
BY INVOKING SUCH A PROFANE SENTIMENT, THE SEAMAN WAS ENFORCING THE EVOLVING MORES OF CIVILIZED SOCIETY AT THE SAME TIME HE WAS DECLARING HIS INDEPENDENCE FROM THEM.
Such a focus made sense given that up until about 1790, the majority of America’s 4 million people lived within 50 miles of the ocean. Many young men (roughly those ages 17 to 35) also spent a good portion of their early adult lives at sea. The seaman’s life was a difficult one, and it took place in an almost entirely male world, which makes it perhaps unsurprising that it led to colorful language.
Sailors employed a plethora of slang and occupational expressions, including such drinking-related gems as “muzzy” (half-drunk), “kidleywink” (a type of beer shop) and “rum gagger” (a cheat who tells tall tales of his sufferings for money). But perhaps the most potent — and long-lasting — sailor expression during this period was “damn son of a bitch,” whose origins Gilje breaks down to demonstrate how a naval insult can be tied to larger societal views of gender, religion, class and even animals — and also why a relatively tame put-down by today’s standards meant so much more to 19th-century ears.
First off, saying “damn” in a heavily religious country was a highly provocative act: Damning someone to hell was putting yourself on par with the Almighty, something that was taken very seriously. Gilje uses the lyrics of “The Sailor’s Folly,” a song playing on the word “damn,” to highlight the irreverence embedded in the sailor’s use of that particular word:
When first the sailor comes on board
He dams all hands at every word
He thinks to make himself a man
At every word he gives a dam
Incorporating “son of” into the insult meant attacking not only an individual but also his mother, and sailors — who often left home for the sea as teenagers — could be very sentimental about their mothers, who often were the main female figures in their lives.
The term “bitch” goes back several centuries (Shakespeare employs “the son and heir of a mutt bitch” in King Lear), but it had grown even more loaded by the 18th century. For starters, urban dog ownership looked very different from the civilized pooper-scooper variety we know today. Dogs were an urban problem, and a class issue too, with the upper and middle classes growing increasingly upset about all of the unsightly mongrel dogs running around city streets defecating, copulating and more. Ideas were changing about gender and sexuality too as the Victorian era ushered in lower fertility rates and a more repressed view of female sexuality. To call someone a bitch in such an environment was to call them a dog in heat, to announce their sexuality to the world. So, as Gilje puts it, “‘You’re a son of a bitch’ means that you’re the son of a woman who is like a dog that will copulate with any mangy cur that’s out there.”
In short, as Gilje writes, calling someone a “damn son of a bitch” was “a challenge to both motherhood and manhood.” And by invoking such a profane sentiment, the seaman was in many ways both enforcing the evolving mores of civilized society at the same time he was declaring his manly independence from them. But the spread of the phrase — and the sailors’ songs, stories and other colorful contributions — beyond the boats and the ports and into mainstream society also exemplifies the permeability of the barrier between maritime and mainstream culture, especially at a time when mass numbers of men more readily moved between the two worlds. “That’s what sailors do [at that time],” observes Gilje. “They swear. And then they come back home.”
A few definitions from Adm. William Henry Smyth’s The Sailor’s Word-Book (1867):
Chowder-headed: Stupid, or batter-brained.
Jack Nasty-Face: A cook’s assistant.
Jaw-me-down: An arrogant, overbearing and unsound loud arguer.
Lubber: An awkward, unseamanlike fellow.
Shaking a cloth in the wind: In galley parlance, expresses being slightly intoxicated.
Wishy-washy: Any too-weak beverage.