There's good reason to believe that sailors have always slung salty language on the high seas. At least that was the impression of the Puritan preacher Cotton Mather, who wrote in a 1699 sermon, "It has been an Observation, older than the Dayes of Plato, That the Sea is a School of Vice... Is not the Sin of profane Swearing and Cursing, become too notorious among our Sailors?" Even the adjective "salty," meaning crude language, originated in the late 1800s as a reference to the "colorful" culture and vocabulary of sailors.
So, what was it exactly about nautical life that turned good Christian boys into foul-mouthed seamen and popularized the notion of "swearing like a sailor"?
From the late 17th through the 19th century, there was arguably no profession more dangerous and technically demanding as being a crewmember on a large sailing vessel, says Marc Nucup, public historian at The Mariners' Museum and Park in Newport News, Virginia. Every aspect of sailing required coordinated teamwork and a "weak link" on the crew could cause grave injury or death. Winning the trust and respect of your crewmates was essential, which meant convincing them you were part of the insular brotherhood of sailors.
"Because this was such a technical skill where the risk of dying or being injured was always present, you were either a sailor or you weren't a sailor," says Nucup, "Speaking like a sailor was a big mark of showing you belonged to that group."
Part of speaking like a sailor was being conversant in all of the specialized shipboard jargon — from scuppers to scuttlebutts — which itself could sound like a foreign language. But proficiency with foul language (at least according to 18th-century standards) was also a sure sign that you were an experienced and trusted hand.
"Swearing like a sailor was one identifiable way of making sure you were part of the group," says Nucup. "Just as there were songs and shanties that all sailors knew, stories they liked to tell, and the way that they dressed in contrast to the civilians on shore."
'Damn' Was a Serious Swear Word
To modern ears, the word "damn" barely registers as bad language, but in the highly religious culture of 18th- and 19th-century America, "damn" packed a serious punch. As historian Paul Gilje explained his excellent book, "To Swear Like a Sailor: Maritime Culture in America 1750-1850," misusing the word "damn" could violate two different Christian taboos: 1) taking the Lord's name in vain (as in "God damn you!") or 2) putting yourself on the same level as God by damning everything from bad wind to a drunken captain.
Most sailors were raised in religious homes and fully understood that throwing around the word "damn" was sinful business, but that was also part of the appeal. Winning acceptance into the sailors' brotherhood often meant actively rejecting the mores of mainstream society, at least while onboard the ship. In his book, Gilje quotes a repentant sailor in a New York prayer meeting:
"I profaned the name of God without any remorse of conscience... I have often called on God to damn my body and my soul, yards and sails, rigging and blocks, everything below and aloft, the ship and my shipmates."
If "damn" was bad enough, then what was considered a truly vile example of "swearing like a sailor"?
There are frustratingly few mentions of specific swear words in ship's logbooks and sailors' journals from the era, but Gilje found one fellow on a whaling ship in 1849 who described his captain as using "the worst and most profane language I have ever heard from mortal lips." If you're expecting "F-bombs" and other R-rated cussing, you might be surprised that one of the foulest insults a 19th-century sailor could utter was to call another man a "damn son of a bitch."
What Did You Say About My Momma?
In his book, Gilje found multiple accounts of men aboard a ship nearly killing each other over being called the phrase. Captains whipped and beat men for less, and mutinies were plotted over such seemingly tame words. But as Gilje explains, there was nothing tame in those days about calling someone's mother a "bitch."
In "A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue" published in 1785, the author defines "bitch" as a "she dog or dogress" and also "the most offensive appellation that can be given to an English woman, even more provoking than that of whore." A prostitute had sex with men for money, but a "bitch," according to the 18th-century dictionary, was a "woman whose animal sexual instincts compelled her to take on any and every available male."
To call a woman a "bitch" in the 18th and 19th century was to deem her less than human and literally bestial. And to call a man a "son of a bitch" was an unforgivable offense considering the pedestals upon which young sailors placed their angel mothers.
"There's a certain sentimentalism, especially among the younger men," says Nucup. "Some may have had sweethearts or wives on shore, but almost all of them had a mother at home and insulting your mother was a big deal."
In fact, "son of a bitch" might have been the most potent "fighting words" in the English language, both on and off the water. To drive his point home, Gilje references the Boston Massacre, the infamous incident in which British soldiers fired on a crowd of rioting civilians in Boston in 1770, killing five American colonists in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War.
As the angry Bostonians first clashed with the British soldiers, one boy pointed to a soldier and cried out, "This is the son of a bitch that knocked me down." That would have almost certainly made the soldier's blood boil. But the insults and taunts didn't stop there. According to another account, someone else in the crowd dared the British to shoot using some of the most profane language they could muster: "Damn you, you rascals; fire. You dare not, fire. Fire and be damned."
'Cursing with Gusto'
Gilje says that over time sailors took more and more pride in their salty reputation, and while insults like "son of a bitch" became widespread among 19th-century Americans of all professions, sailors "embraced cursing with a distinct gusto" and elevated it into an "art form." The ability to swear freely was romanticized as one of the liberties of life at sea and "swearing like a sailor" came to represent a certain kind of manly maritime lifestyle.
Do modern sailors still deserve the reputation as prolific and creative cussers? We reached out to Dave Winkler, a retired Navy Reserve commander and now a historian with the Naval Historical Foundation, who relayed a story about a crewmate who practically jumped overboard when the new skipper handed down a "no swearing" order. That said, wrote Winkler in an email, "I would not say that sailors have a special ownership over swarthy language. I suspect it's pervasive throughout industrial environments. Then there are Marine Corps drill instructors!"
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Now That's Cool
To "spin a yarn" is sailor-speak for telling a story and references the nautical practice of twisting fibers together to form a thick rope. The metaphor "fit the way sailors told their stories," writes Gilje, "offering little bits and pieces of information that tied together and formed a larger narrative."
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