My wife and I have reached the twelfth book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, The Letter of Marque, whose title reminds me of a Poul Anderson story, “Marque and Reprisal,” which I read as a teenage sf fan in my favorite magazine, F&SF (you can see the Jack Gaughan cover here), and which taught me the magnificent phrase letters of marque and reprisal (“commissions or warrants issued to someone to commit what would otherwise be acts of piracy”). If I had ever looked up the archaic-sounding marque, I couldn’t remember doing it, so I checked the OED, which has an entry updated in December 2000 with the following etymology:

< Anglo-Norman mark, marke, marque, merche and Middle French marche, marque, merque right of reprisal (1339; French marque) < Old Occitan marca right of reprisal, seizure by way of reprisal, object seized (12th cent.) < marcar to seize by way of reprisal (12th cent.), probably < a Germanic cognate of mark n.1 and mark v., the likely sense being ‘to mark as one’s own, to claim’, though this is uncertain and disputed. Compare post-classical Latin marca (1313 in a Gascon source), marcha (1152 in a document from Toulouse), marchia (1318 in a Gascon source), marqua (1293 in a British source), mercha (1295 in a British source) all denoting goods seized by way of reprisal; compare also Middle French merquer (1389), Catalan marcar (13th cent.), post-classical Latin marcare, marchare, marchiare, marquare (13th and 14th centuries in British and continental sources) to seize by way of reprisal.
Occurs frequently in the collocation marque and reprisal(s) after Anglo-Norman legal use, e.g.:

1353 Rolls of Parl. II. 250/1 Nous eions la Lei de mark & de reprisailles.
1417 Act 4 Hen. V Stat. 2 c. 7 Que de toutz attemptatz faitz par ses ennemys..encountre le tenure daucunes Trieuves..en les quelles nest pas fait expresse mencion que toutz marques & reprisailles cesseront..nostre Signior le Roi a toutz qi lour sentiront en tiel cas grevez, voet grauntier marque en due forme.

With letters of marque compare Anglo-Norman lettres merches (1435), Middle French lettre de marque (1549), post-classical Latin litterae marquae (1410 in a British source), litterae de marqua (14th–15th cent. in a British source).

More complicated than I would have thought, and reading Anglo-Norman legal verbiage always makes me smile.


  1. As an aside: the German for lettres de marque is Caperbrief or Kaperbrief. To capture (a ship) is kapern, to board it with intent to capture is entern. These activities do not involve pickled flowers or ducks.

  2. You might enjoy “The Privateering Stroke: Salem’s Privateers in the War of 1812” by Capt Michael H. Rutstein. An account of the extent to which America relied on privateers in that war.

  3. Apologies for the multiple postings! I thought I had cancelled those with links. I thought you might have a spam policy.

  4. And, now I see that I can post links, I can share this article from the California Law Review, which examines whether the US should issue letters of marque and reprisal to combat Somali pirates:

  5. I didn’t realise the Germans were involved in piratical capers.

  6. Most famous German capers/pirates

  7. Bathrobe: I didn’t realise the Germans were involved in piratical capers.
    From the instructive CA Law Review paper linked by Jeromos:

    During the Franco-German War from 1870–1871, Prussia (a Paris Declaration signatory) invited commercial vessels to attack French ships of war, offered bounties, allowed them to fly the federal flag (rather than the merchant flag), and trained merchant mariners crews under naval discipline. These privately armed and commanded civil merchants made up what Prussia called a volunteer navy.

    As to the Paris Declaration:

    In 1856, at the close of the Crimean War, the world’s maritime powers signed a treaty banning the use of letters of marque amongst themselves. The most-accepted European account explains that prior to the Crimean War, France and the United Kingdom signed a modus vivendi to refrain from issuing letters of marque because neither side felt they could effectively control privateers. As the story goes, after the war, politicians and merchants on both sides appreciated that the agreement had limited damage to civilian property. Britain, France, and other powers met in Paris to establish a prohibition on letters of marque during war and peace, which became known as the Paris Declaration. Cynics—and Americans—believe that the Paris Declaration was a British and French ploy to prevent “[t]he Maritime population of the U.S. [from furnishing] to Russia the elements of a fleet of privateers, which attached to its service by Letters of Marque and covering the seas with a network would harass and pursue [their] commerce even in the most remote waters.”

  8. I always believed, or hoped, that “getting an early mark” obscurely derived from the same origin. (Being allowed, or allowing yourself, to bunk off early).

  9. Sound like the Vittles Brothers were reverse vikings.

  10. I had never heard of them until SFReader brought them up. Then, just now in a program about Gotland on German tv, they were mentioned as the Vitalienbrüder. Vitalien would mean nothing to your average Heinz today, unlike vittles.
    In contrast to what the English WiPe says that SFReader linked, the German WiPe says the name probably has nothing to do with providing vittles to Sweden. The name appears in records of the Hamburg municipal treasury predating the siege of Stockholm. The article suggests that the Vitalienbrüder gave themselves the name to stress that they organized food and money on their own, instead of receiving them from their current employers as is the case with mercenaries.

  11. Correction: the article doesn’t say that the Vitalienbrüder gave themselves that name, but only that the name was used with the connotation I described.

  12. The description of the book Jeromos refers to mentions ‘open boats manned by unemployed sailors’ presumably on inshore patrols. This puts me in mind of the Somali pirates, also in open boats manned by fishermen in a cashless market, unemployed guerrillas with AK 47’s, and English speakers for negotiations. It’s been some time since I’ve accessed websites about the latter, but calling them ‘vicious’ in the legal proposition referred to seems a bit over the top.

  13. ‘Desperate’ might be a better word.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    I have seen publicity campaigns funded by government-employee unions against privatization of government services (because of the threat to the unions’ membership’s financial self-interest) which have used “privateers” pejoratively, presumably to imply that advocates of privatization are quasi-piratical. I can see the rhetorical gambit, but I’m a bit skeptical about how large a percentage of the population even knows the word (even if only as a vague synonym for “pirate”) and if that’s large enough to give them the payoff their PR advisers anticipate.

  15. I first heard “letter of marque” from Stan Rogers:
    The historical context is a bit pre-Aubrey/Maturin.

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    Separate issue about marque v. mark, which is process by which some but not all words of I guess French origin get respelled, so that in most contexts “masque” is archaic/weird compared to “mask” and likewise with “risque” (the noun as opposed to the two-syllable adjective) versus “risk.” “Cheque” v. “check” in some contexts may be a U.K. v. U.S. difference. I think “barque” and “bark” may still coexist in nautical terminology. But lots of other -que-final words seem safe. Is there an overall pattern here, or just a lot of word to word randomness?

  17. Caperbrief or Kaperbrief
    Many of us have partaken of brief capers. I had no idea there was a special word to denote the briefs one wears when such an event transpires.
    “barque” and “bark” may still coexist in nautical terminology.
    These words may ultimately derive from ancient Egyptian.
    One of the prettiest Ferraris ever built — and among the very first — was the 1949 166 MM Touring Barchetta.

  18. marie-lucie says

    Une barque is a small boat, propelled by one or more persons with oars. I think that the English bark is quite a bit larger. As for Cleopatra’s craft, I think it was fairly large also.

  19. Then there’s the barca-longa.
    I ran into the word Schnigge on German Wikipedia while looking up the Brotherhood of the Vittles. (It seems that they suffered a decisive defeat at the hands of a Schnigge called the Bunte Kuh.) What’s a Schnigge in English?

  20. Empty: It’s usually called a “Viking longship”, or else by the Old Norse name snekkja: see Wikipedia.

  21. The OED adds that it was called a snac in Old English (cf. Old French esneque), and a snake in the 19th century.

  22. It’s a traditional boat of Russian Pomors. Called shnyaka in Russian
    Looks like this

  23. and a snake in the 19th century
    No relation to a dragon boat, I expect.

  24. Bathrobe: Which dragon boats? There are Viking longships called drekar referred to in the sagas, though none have been found.

  25. Trond Engen says

    Looks like this
    I’m no specialist, but these look like different types of what we would call Nordlandsbåter. Interesting, since the Nordlandsbåt is a straightforward development from medieval Scandinavian boats while what we now call a snekke is rather different.
    And the scenes are just like contemporary (or only few years older) photos from Northern Norway. For some reason I had expected a more visible difference in material culture. I don’t know if it’s significant, but I note that where the photographers are named, their names are Norwegian: Тор Иверсен (or is that the collector?) and Густав Халльстрём.

  26. While France gave its lettres de marques to its own sailors to act as corsaires, England had its sea-dogs (amongst which John Hawkins and Francis Drake), who attacked Spanish or French ships, and Holland had its zee-geuzen (called sea-beggars in English and gueux de mer in French), who played a substantial part in freeing the United Provinces from Spanish rule.

  27. marie-lucie says

    Siganus, I have never run into the phrase gueux de mer, thank you for mentioning it. It certainly seems extremely derogatory, unlike un corsaire which has rather dashing connotations.
    Do you know the old French song Sont les filles de La Rochelle, which is about a ship equipped and manned by young women, with the captain apparently the only man on board? The girls intend to faire la course dedans les mers du Levant ‘be privateers in the Eastern Mediterranean’.

  28. How I’d love to hear that song, m-l! And now I am, thanks to the glories of the Internet. I do not think that Jack Aubrey would appreciate sails made of lace.

  29. marie-lucie says

    nbm, I had forgotten this sort of detail. Well, the song is not exactly of proto-feminist inspiration.

  30. Marie-Lucie, I might have heard about “Les filles de la Rochelle”, but I can’t find the book about popular French song which I received as a gift many years ago. Though women were not always welcome on board ships — they were even supposed to bring bad luck sometimes —, there are a number of cases in which they embarked as crew members while being disguised as men, among them the botanist Jean/ne Baret (Ph. Commerson’s mistress), who is said to be the first woman to have sailed around the world.
    In his book Histoire des corsaires (Presses universitaires de France, 1978), the historian Auguste Toussaint uses the Dutch term zee geuzen, but this seems to be only a translation of gueux de mer. The proper Dutch expression is more likely to have been Watergeuzen. One of the geuzen leaders, Hendrick van Brederode, the one who assumed the name of “gueux” given to them, was called the “Grote Geus”. (Somehow this is not very different from those who called themselves “sans-culottes”.) They had an emblem showing a beggar’s pouch as well as, strangely enough, Hebraic characters and a French motto saying “vive les gevlx” — see the Wikipedia article linked to above. (Funny word, that “gueux”, pronounced [gø]; it could almost sound Danish, or Chinese, though it is said to be of Dutch origin, from guit, scoundrel, villain.)
    I know Mauritian people who pride themselves on being scions of more or less famous privateers (or corsaires, i.e. those who practised “la course”), even if in the mind of other people these highly-praised forebears were little different from plain pirates, buccaneers, filibusters, freebooters and all the likes of them.
    (Incidentally, “lettres de marque”, without the final -s I put above — a word that should be cognate with marquess, marquis, margrave, marche and what not.)

  31. Oh, only now do I remember that there is a Belgian type of beer called “la gueuze”, with a -z. (Maybe the name has something to do with the Dutch word geuzen mentioned above.) One of the of the gueuze beers is called “Mort Subite” (i.e. “Sudden Death”) — no doubt a beverage suitable for a pirate.
    Trond, I might not be right but these boats you refer to tend to remind me of small boats known as doris, which were for instance used for fishing on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. I associate this name very much with small clinker-built boats. (Only today did I learn that “un bateau à clins” is called “a clinker-built boat” in English. “Clinker”, a name that sounds very cementitious to my “Cimentier martien”‘s ears…)

  32. They had an emblem showing a beggar’s pouch as well as, strangely enough, Hebraic characters
    The Hebrew word is the Tetragrammaton.

  33. The Hebrew word is the Tetragrammaton
    Ah, okay. (I’m afraid I’m not too familiar with its Hebrew version.) I’ve recently read — it might have been in David Crystal’s Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language — that its original pronunciation has been lost.

  34. Trond Engen says

    Siganus: these boats you refer to tend to remind me of small boats known as doris, which were for instance used for fishing on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.
    I don’t know enough about boatbuilding to say anything with confidence, and the word dory doosn’t mean much to me except that I do know that my father in his youth in in the early fifties took part in building dory boats in Rana. Rana is a traditional boatbuilding center with it’s special type of Nordland boats. The Norwegian WP article says dory building in Norway started with the introduction of the purse seine. I infer that since this meant decreased demand for the traditional Nordland boat, dories became a replacement product for the boatbuilders. Your doris reminds me of the Western Norwegian oselvar.
    (Only today did I learn that “un bateau à clins” is called “a clinker-built boat” in English. “Clinker”, a name that sounds very cementitious to my “Cimentier martien”‘s ears…)
    Klinkbygd in Norwegian. If the WP article is to be believed, the technique spread from Scandinavia along the Arlantic coast as far as the Loire in France. I assume that’s based on archaeology, since the history of the oselvar type is said to go back thousands of years.

  35. I’ve recently read — it might have been in David Crystal’s Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language — that its original pronunciation has been lost.
    It seems that a taboo arose against uttering this name of God, in consequence whereof the pronunciation was lost. The Wiki article notes the scholarly debate over its pronunciation.
    The word is a form of the Hebrew verb “to be”.

  36. That’s interesting, there are articles at bokmal at Dory and Doris (båt) and at nynorsk at Dory.

  37. Trond, the oselvar seems to a very fine little boat. I have friends who would have loved it, no doubt. (Can it float in waters warmer than 25°C?)
    “Klinkbygd in Norwegian.”
    Any idea where the word “klink” might come from and what its original meaning might have been? I must say I am quite baffled that the word “clinker” is used with this acceptation in English, as it is also the name of the product finely ground to make cement.
    Paul, it was David Crystal indeed, and here is what he says:
    “The true name of God, or of individual gods, is a closely guarded secret in many cultures, if indeed it is known at all. The real names of Egyptian deities were never divulged.
    Observant Jews do not pronounce the divine name as it occurred in the Hebrew of the Old Testament. It was written with four consonants, YHWH (the tetragrammaton), vowel points not being written in pre-Massoretic Hebrew. […] The form Yahweh is a scholarly attempt at reconstruction, interpreting its meaning as part of the verb ‘to be’, to give the title ‘the One who Is’. The name Jehovah has been traced back only to the 14th century […]. It is thus not of scriptural origin, and the true pronunciation of YHWH is now quite lost.”
    (Chapter 3 – The magic of language.)
    It looks quite strange, in retrospect, that Dutch “sea beggars” would put the forbidden Hebrew name of God on their emblem.

  38. In English “clinker” can also mean a cinder or ash. In the children’s song “Little Tommy Tinker” Tommy sits on a hot clinker, with painful results.

  39. { }, ordinary Portland cement is made with clinker, itself a mixture of ground limestone and clay heated to about 1450°C until it hardens in lumps. Therefore there is a clear link with the cinder you mentioned above (“a piece of incombustible material left after the combustion of coal, coke, etc.”) The connection with the way planks are fixed to each other to make a boat’s hull is not so obvious.

  40. marie-lucie says

    The Tetragrammaton: “YHWH” is the Hebrew word (or its consonantal skeleton), “tetragrammaton”, literally ‘four letters’, is the Greek description of the word.
    Siganus: clinker: I think that the semantic link is the basic meaning ‘stick/stuck together’.

  41. Siganus Sutor says

    … unless, of course, the said planks are made of ash

  42. I think that the semantic link is the basic meaning ‘stick/stuck together’.
    m-l, Why do you think that?

  43. marie-lucie says

    Siganus: Though women were not always welcome on board ships…, there are a number of cases in which they embarked as crew members while being disguised as men
    This is true, and some women disguised as men have also fought as soldiers. However, these are very rare cases: not every woman can successfully pass for a man, especially while sharing living quarters with men! (or the opposite). In the song, the girls are not trying to pass as men among men, they are the whole crew of the ship.
    This song must have been satirical to begin with: perhaps some women had complained about not being able to join the privateers, and fantasized about having their own boat, and the song was about what a ship run by women would be like.
    marque and similar words: marche, marquis/marquess, margrave (from Markgraf) are from a Germanic word mark ‘land along a border’. But the ancestor of marque ‘signe, etc’ is different, as described in the post.

  44. … unless, of course, the said planks are made of ash…
    To this day, Morgan motor cars use an ash body frame. Termites keep your distance!

  45. marque and similar words
    Also Mercia, one of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, centered on the River Trent. The language of the Rohirrim in The Lord of the Rings is Mercian or Mercianized Old English: indeed, they call their country the Riddermark.

  46. Trond Engen says

    Klink is really the nailing technique. There’s a good description in the WP article for saum. I won’t even try translating it into English. And I see I don’t have to, since it’s described under clinker.
    Bjorvand & Lindeman don’t touch the word, so I’m far from certain on the etymology, but I’d guess that it might be related to klenge and klynge “cling”, or to onomatopoieia like klinge “ring” or klikke “click”.
    In Norwegian the word was also used for joints in steelships, since rivets work on the same principle. For an ongoing project I’m involved in, the landscape architect wanted to use it to join elements of steel to build retaining walls in a dockside park. I think it’s been dropped for budget reasons. (As usual. Landscape architect must be the most frustrating work imaginable.)

  47. Trond Engen says

    Siganus: the oselvar seems to a very fine little boat. I have friends who would have loved it, no doubt. (Can it float in waters warmer than 25°C?)
    We could start a business. I think I may know some people building oselvar boats around Bergen. The problem with higher temperatures is that wood is highly anisotropous with very different thermal expansion in different directions. But I guess one may have the boats built especially for tropical waters.

  48. marie-lucie says

    m-l: I think that the semantic link is the basic meaning ‘stick/stuck together’.
    Trond: I’d guess that it might be related to klenge and klynge “cling”, or to onomatopoieia like klinge “ring” or klikke “click”.
    I agree with Trond’s first guess: related to klenge and klynge “cling” (and thereby to English cling (to other things, to each other, etc). This boat-building technique overlaps long thin pieces of wood and makes them cling tightly to each other.
    Onomatopoieia consists in creating words imitating the noise or cry of something. Words like click and clank are (at least partially) intended to imitate a type of noise, but cling is not. Boats are not intended to ring or make any type of noise, and noises produced during construction would not be specific to boat building but apply to other types of carpentry as well.

  49. @Trond, m-l: Hellquist gives the etymology of Swedish klink, doubtlessly the same word, as < Low German klinken < OHG klenken, a causative form of klang < PGmc. *hlank-. However, he mentions an alternative etymology < OHG klenkan, which, if I’m not wrong, would be cognate to Eng cling, clench. So both your guesses seem supported.

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