Monday, 14 July 2008

ORIGINS of phrases

I love websites that delve into the origins of phrases in the English language. A couple of weeks ago I made a comment to GB about that nautically neat phrase 'Ship-shape and Bristol fashion'. It made me wonder why Bristol was singled out as being a neat and tidy place. 'Ship-shape and Bristol fashion' is actually two phrases merged into one. Ship-shape came first and has been used since the 17th century. It is recorded in Sir Henry Manwayring's "The sea-mans dictionary", 1644: "It [the rake] being of no use for the Ship, but only for to make her Ship shapen, as they call it."

Bristol fashion was added later and is first seen in print during Bristol's heyday as a trading port, in Richard Dana Jr's "Two years before the mast", 1840: "Everything on board 'ship-shape and Bristol fashion'."

Once I investigated I discovered some clowns were suggesting it was a racially derogatory phrase and referred to slaves being ready for market. (Bristol and Liverpool being the centres of the slave trade.) What this totally ignored was the fact that slaves rarely came through Bristol. The Bristol trade was a triangle - British manufactured goods to West Africa; slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean; Carribean goods like sugar to Bristol.

The phrase is much more likely to have come from the fact that Bristol was miles from the sea and its harbour has one of the most variable tidal flows of any port in the world. Boats were moored on the beach at low tide and had to float again with the tide. They therefore had to be sturdy vessels and well-stowed to be sure of floating properly when the tide rose. Alternatively, Admiral William Henry Smyth's 1865 Sailor's Word-book - an alphabetical digest of nautical terms, which is a treasure trove of nautically inspired phrases, says the phrase was simply: "Said when Bristol was in its palmy commercial days - and its shipping was all in proper good order."

In the end, like many old phrases, we'll never know the answer.


  1. How's that for poems like "Blow Bugle Blow" ?
    My english is not very good: what is a "Bugle"?

  2. Blow, Bugle, Blow was the title and refrain of a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson. A bugle is a brass musical instrument without valves; used for military calls and fanfares

    THE splendour falls on castle walls
    And snowy summits old in story:
    The long light shakes across the lakes,
    And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
    Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
    Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.


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