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31 August 2016

10 Words With Nautical Origins - 500 Words Ep. 34


You might have spotted this little nautical fact over on Twitter the other day:


Yep, your slush fund isn’t quite as wholesome as it might sound. 

But that fact was a neat little précis to this week’s YouTube video, which is exploring the stories behind 10 words with nautical origins.



Another maritime tweet that could have made the final cut here is this one:


Which probably needs a little bit more explanation here on the blog.

So. As a stereotypically piratical exclamation of surprise or infuriation, shiver my timbers! dates back to the late eighteenth century. Although the Oxford English Dictionary credits its earliest print appearance to the English author (and friend of Charles Dickens) Frederick Marryat’s novel Jacob Faithful in 1834, earlier records have since been uncovered—including one in the script of a play, Opposition, staged in London in 1795:

Old Sailor: “Lather me!—Shiver my timbers. if so be he comes athwart me—I'll soon lower his topsails for him—Here’s King George and old England for ever!”

Oddly, the shiver of shiver my timbers! and the trembling shiver you do when cold or frightened aren’t related.

Both date back to the early Middle Ages, but of the two, shivering with cold is something of a mystery. One theory suggests it might derive from ceafl, an Old English word meaning “jaw”, and so might once have specifically referred to chattering teeth. But alas, that’s just a theory and the word’s exact origins are unknown.

The shiver of shiver my timbers! is meanwhile thought to derive from an Old German word, schever, meaning a splinter or chip of wood. That makes it an etymological cousin of words like sheave and shive, while the expression to burst or fly to shivers has been used since the fifteenth century m to mean “to break or shatter into pieces”. Shivering someone’s timbers, ultimately, alludes giving them a shock or cause for concern as terrible as the cracking or splintering of the wooden boards used to construct ships.

What isn’t known, however, is whether the (unfortunately unknown) author of Opposition made up the expression themselves, or whether—like Frederick Marryat, who served in the Royal Navy and invented the Marryat flag code used to pass messages between ships—they had naval experience and simply reused an expression he had heard elsewhere. That’s one nautical question we’ll probably never fathom out.


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