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The Blue Bark Mystery (minicast)

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A caller asks a delicate question about the phrase “blue bark shipment,” a term involving the transport of deceased members of the military. Martha and Grant discuss this puzzling expression and the challenge of tracking down its origins, and then put out a call to listeners. Do you know the origin of the term?

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  • The word “blue bark” is an old Navy term, from the days of the Ships-of-the-line. War ships could be identified by a gold line the adorned the trim of the ship. When the captain of the ship, or another shipmate, died while in battle (and eventually just at sea), the gold line was painted blue to allow other ships and those waiting at the dock time to render honors.

    The term “blue bark” comes from this tradition of painting the bark blue and is at least as old as the USS Constitution.

  • Hi, Joshua — Thanks for weighing in. Do you have a reference source for this? I’d love more details.

  • I e-mailed some references to you. If you don’t already know the origin of the word, it is impossible to find. If you know the origin, it is only MOSTLY impossible.

    If you do a search for the origin of “feeling blue” you will see more references to this tradition. The Navy position is that we use the phrase “feeling blue” from the same origin.

    One book I know of, from the top of my head is “When a Loose Cannon Flogs a Dead Horse There’s the Devil to Pay: Seafaring Words in Everyday Speech” by Olivia A. Isil, and the Naval Historical Center at the Washington Navy Yard.

    Most of the Google, references will be found on website that discuss the traditions of Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish ships (with a few British references). This leads me to believe that it is from a teutonic cultural origin rather than a Southern European tradition.

  • Based on what Joshua said, I did a “Google” search and found this, Martha — perhaps you’ll want Joshua to have a chance to reply, but in case he doesn’t:

    Mourning. (Naut.) The ensign and pennant half-mast, the yards topped awry or a-peek, or alternately topped an-end, are signs of mourning. The sides painted blue or rubbed with ashes, etc., instead of white, indicates deep mourning. In the navy, a ship is thus painted on the death of her captain, and the flag-ship on that of the admiral ; in the merchant service, on that of the owner.

    Glossary of Terms and Phrases
    By Henry Percy Smith
    London: Kegan Paul, 1883
    Contributors: The Rev. H. Percy Smith, assisted by the Rev. Sir George W. Cox, Rev. J. F. Twisden, C. A. M. Fennell, Colonel W. Paterson, Rev. C. P. Milner, and others.

  • Wow, Joshua and Liz, that’s pretty darned fascinating. Reminds me of the supposed etymology of “Aegean,” going back to King Aegeus killing himself because his son Theseus forgot to change the color of the sail on his homeward-bound ship from black to white, leading his father to think Theseus had died.

    Thanks so much for this information, ya’ll! Seems plausible to me. Anybody else?

  • Hi, Grant —

    I thought “URL(optional)” meant a URL for one’s own website (and I don’t have one, so I left it empty). I never thought of its having to do with a citation! Thanks for doing the link.


    (No need to post this)

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