Grant shoots holes in a story that just won’t die that about “son of a gun” and babies born aboard sailing ships.
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This minicast was released on December 19, 2019.
One of my favorite songs on the jukebox in my grandparents’ basement was “Dang Me” by Roger Miller.
Some of the lines go,
They say roses are red, and violets are purple
Sugar’s sweet and so is maple surple.
I’m the seventh out of seven sons.
My pappy was a pistol and I’m a son of a gun.
Although I still get a kick out of “maple surple,” today I’d like to talk about that last line, “son of a gun.”
A few things are pretty obvious about it right away.
One, it’s clearly a politer version of a coarser phrase, “son of a bitch.”
Two, like a lot of memorable language, it rhymes.
But what else?
Why “gun,” for example?
Well, there is a story that just won’t die that “son of a gun” has something to do with women accompanying men on sailing ships in the 18th century.
As this untrue story goes — and this one is widely repeated by people who should know better — these women, variously said to be wives or prostitutes, slept on the gun decks with their men, and even gave birth to babies there.
Some versions claim that those guns or cannons, or ones ashore, were fired to induce labor in those women.
So, this false story goes, a child born under such conditions would be a son of a gun.
At this point in the podcast, naval historians have their heads in their hands, trying to figure out whether they want to launch into the three-hour explanation of all that is wrong with this ridiculous tale or whether they just need to go for a very long walk to into the sea.
Now, there’s a gnat’s crochet of a chance that the too-perfect origin story may have given a boost to “son of a gun” in English. But it’s not the origin of the term.
So here’s what we know.
“Son of a gun,” a derogatory term for a man, an animal, or a thing, is known in print as early as 1708. “Son of a gun” doesn’t usually refer to a woman.
Then, 142 years later, after 1708, the false “baby born to a mother who accompanied a father to sea” story appears.
That, in the word history business, is uncomfortable math. A 142-year gap means someone made up a story after the fact.
And in this case we know who did it.
Admiral William Henry Smyth, in his Sailor’s Word-Book published in 1867, is the first to include the fanciful story.
He defines “son of a gun” as “an epithet conveying contempt in a slight degree, and originally applied to boys born afloat, when women were permitted to accompany their husbands to sea. One admiral declared he literally was thus cradled, under the breast of a gun-carriage.”
Now, why would he get it wrong?
Well, the usual reasons in the word history dodge are one, trusting one’s own best guesses too much; two, trusting someone else’s story too much; three, believing a joke as if it were true; and four, just outright making stuff up to fill space.
I suspect Admiral Smyth simply trusted the story of the other admiral he mentions.
It happens. The expression was already in existence, that other admiral apparently embodied it, and it seems to fit so perfectly, so how could he not be the origin?
Ordinarily, when a story about a phrase’s origin is true, the story and the word are more or less contemporary, give or take a decade or two. So, Admiral Smyth might not even imagine that the term was many decades older than the other admiral.
But, now that we know there’s a 142-year gap, any word historian or etymologist is immediately looking around for more evidence.
Unfortunately, nearly all of the other printed sources using the “children born at sea” story can be traced back to Smyth! We can tell because either they name him or cite his work, or because they re-use his definition word for word, or nearly so. That means all of those sources count just once.
Also, really, did it not occur to anyone repeating this story that some of the babies born at sea might have been girls? Did that not put at least a little doubt in their minds about “son of a gun”?
So here we are at the beginning.
Why “son of a gun”?
Well, first of all, in English we mince a lot of oaths.
We take coarse phrases that aren’t allowed in polite company and we make them a bit politer so our intent is clear but we won’t get into as much trouble for saying them.
So son of a bitch becomes son of a biscuit eater, or son of who cut your hair last, or son of a sea cook, and, of course, son of a gun, and a whole lot more.
But, maybe you’re saying, what about “gun” to refer to a man who uses or carries a gun? Why couldn’t that be the origin? Well, that’s another theory we can quash with dates.
The first use I know where “gun” means a “man” is from 1818. Again, it’s too late by way too many years. “Son of a gun” is older.
At the end of this, though, is something that the amateur seafoamers and the salty dogs who love this false “son of a gun” story haven’t considered.
It’s that the dates and citations in the Oxford English Dictionary are awash in naval, nautical, and seafaring terms. The OED specifically sought out experts and fanatics in these fields in the last century. They left no nautical or seafaring book or journal unopened in their search for such language.
If “son of a gun” were indeed from babies born aboard sailing vessels, I believe they would have proven it.
I will put my money on the obsessive word hunters over passed-along fanciful word stories any day of the year.
For A Way with Words, I’m Grant Barrett, and I’m a son of a gun.
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