At the end of Chapter Four of Master and Commander, Stephen Maturin cavils at the reference to him as “surgeon” in the order appointing him to the ship’s company, saying “It is a false description; and a false description is anathema to the philosophic mind.” The merry celebrants at the gun-room table respond with a colloquy on naval semantics:

‘I am sure it is anathema to the philosophic mind,’ said James Dillon. ‘But the naval mind fairly revels in it, so it does. Take that word sloop, for example.’
‘Yes,’ said Stephen, narrowing his eyes through the haze of port and trying to remember the definitions he had heard.
‘Why, now, a sloop, as you know, is properly a one-masted vessel, with a fore-and-aft rig. But in the Navy a sloop may be ship-rigged – she may have three masts.’
‘Or take the Sophie,’ cried the master, anxious to bring his crumb of comfort. ‘She’s rightly a brig, you know, Doctor, with her two masts.’ He held up two fingers, in case a landman might not fully comprehend so great a number. ‘But the minute Captain Aubrey sets foot in her, why, she too becomes a sloop; for a brig is a lieutenant’s command.’
‘Or take me,’ said Jack. ‘I am called captain, but really I am only a master and commander.’
‘Or the place where the men sleep, just for’ard,’ said the purser, pointing. ‘Rightly speaking, and official, ’tis the gun-deck, though there’s never a gun on it. We call it the spar-deck – though there’s no spars, neither – but some say the gun-deck still, and call the right gun-deck the upper-deck. Or take this brig, which is no true brig at all, not with her square mainsail, but rather a sorts of snow, or a hermaphrodite.’
‘No, no, my dear sir,’ said James Dillon, ‘never let a mere word grieve your heart. We have nominal captain’s servants who are, in fact, midshipmen; we have nominal able seamen on our books who are scarcely breeched – they are a thousand miles away and still at school; we swear we have not shifted any backstays, when we shift them continually; and we take many other oaths that nobody believes – no, no, you may call yourself what you please, so long as you do your duty. The Navy speaks in symbols, and you may suit what meaning you choose to the words.’

I can’t resist adding this bit of dialogue from earlier in the chapter:

‘Dear Queeney. I believe I spoke of her before, did I not? She taught me mathematics.’
‘I believe you did: a Hebrew scholar, if I do not mistake?’
‘Exactly so. Conic sections and the Pentateuch came as easy as kiss my hand to her. Dear Queeney. I thought she was to be an old maid, though she was so pretty; for how could any man make up to a girl that knows Hebrew?’


  1. I’m not going to try to be on subject, but I’ve just learnt of this project, that might be of interest to our host and his audience:
    The linguists have finally discovered the beauty of citizen science and are asking for volunteers to help transcribe and enormous cache of papyri (500 BCE – 1000 CE).
    Knowing Greek is not necessary, but since you people do, it may be even more fun for you.

  2. Although I read Master and Commander, I didn’t remember that passage. Ah, with a real writer, the love of language will always out.

  3. My bride knows Hebrew quite nicely, but, given her ignorance of solid geometry, I was willing to take the chance.

  4. I was always with the doctor when the distinctions between sloops, brigs and so on were discussed. I also learned to tune out the passages devoted to descriptions of rigging.

  5. John Emerson says

    I’ve been told that in the U.S. Navy a saying goes “There’s the right way, the wrong way and the Navy way”. The Navy way is enforced.

  6. That is indeed the Navy saying.
    “Any woman learning Greek must buy fashionable dresses.” — Henry Adams, referring to Clover Hooper Adams.

  7. Lewis Carroll would be pleased with this passage.
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

  8. He had her in mind, but what what Mrs. Adams wrote in her letter was,

    I have become bored with the idea of getting any new gowns, but Henry says, “People who study Greek must take pains with their dress.” If I were a bonanzaine I would sail in and make a business of it, but an occasional venture is too much trouble.

    which could apply equally to both sexes.
    bonanzaine is a word that came and went.

  9. To explicate MMcM’s last cryptic remark, a quote from Mrs. Jack: A Biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner: “Mrs. Jack would never be a ‘Bonanzaine,’ as wives and daughters whose fortunes came from gold-mining ventures were called — but she now had prospects of inheriting a comfortable fortune.”

  10. John Emerson says

    One of the characters in Henry Adams’ “Democracy” is a bonanzaine who must have been one of the first fictional appearances of the free-spirited California Girl.
    One 19th c. French author, probably Flaubert, maybe Zola, maybe Gautier, maybe Houssaye, was shocked at the shameless way that American girls flirted. I’m still working at figuring out French sexual mores of that period, but my best guess is that respectable American girls flirted publicly, rather like unrespectable French girls. France seemed to have had a dual sexual regime, with extraordinarily stodgy public marriages and a steamy back room of adultery, whoring, and concubinage.

  11. Tocqueville saw this in a positive light, as a consequence of American democracy.
    I think maybe the class (or imagined lack of such distinctions) of the Daisy Millers, Inès Parkers and Millie Lobsters may have also had something to do with Frenchmen’s confusion.

  12. John Emerson says

    Wharton’s “Roman Fever” is an amazing story. James’s book looks like crap, what with Daisy being punished for her sins by malaria. Sounds like a Chick tract.
    I confess that I have read very little of James, but the Wiki summary sounds horrible.
    I need to read more Wharton, obviously.

  13. vrai.cabecou says

    It’s my understanding that Frenchmen (and to some extent, British men) of the era found unmarried American women too forward, but married American women too unyielding to their advances for their egos.

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