I had always assumed that press in the sense ‘force someone to become a sailor’ (as in the phrase press gang) was simply a transferred use of the ordinary verb, but a lively book I’ve just stumbled on, The Press-Gang Afloat and Ashore by J. R. Hutchinson (1914), provided a surprising explanation which I (having verified it with more scholarly sources of lexicographical information) hereby pass on to you:

The origin of the term “pressing,” with its cognates “to press” and “pressed,” is not less remarkable than the genesis of the violence it so aptly describes. Originally the man who was required for the king’s service at sea, like his twin brother the soldier, was not “pressed” in the sense in which we now use the term. He was merely subjected to a process called “presting.” To “prest” a man meant to enlist him by means of what was technically known as “prest” money—“prest” being the English equivalent of the obsolete French prest, now prêt, meaning “ready.” In the recruiter’s vocabulary, therefore, “prest” money stood for what is nowadays, in both services, commonly termed the “king’s shilling,” and the man who, either voluntarily or under duress, accepted or received that shilling at the recruiter’s hands, was said to be “prested” or “prest.” In other words, having taken the king’s ready money, he was thenceforth, during the king’s pleasure, “ready” for the king’s service.

By the transfer of the prest shilling from the hand of the recruiter to the pouch of the seaman a subtle contract, as between the latter and his sovereign, was supposed to be set up, than which no more solemn or binding pact could exist save between a man and his Maker. One of the parties to the contract was more often than not, it is true, a strongly dissenting party; but although under the common law of the land this circumstance would have rendered any similar contract null and void, in this amazing transaction between the king and his “prest” subject it was held to be of no vitiating force. From the moment the king’s shilling, by whatever means, found its way into the sailor’s possession, from that moment he was the king’s man, bound in heavy penalties to toe the line of duty, and, should circumstances demand it, to fight the king’s enemies to the death, be that fate either theirs or his.

By some strange irony of circumstance there happened to be in the English language a word—“pressed”—which tallied almost exactly in pronunciation with the old French word prest, so long employed, as we have seen, to differentiate from his fellows the man who, by the devious means we have here described, was made “ready” for the sea service. “Press” means to constrain, to urge with force—definitions precisely connoting the development and manner of violent enlistment. Hence, as the change from covert to overt violence grew in strength, “pressing,” in the mouths of the people at large, came to be synonymous with that most obnoxious, oppressive and fear-inspiring system of recruiting which, in the course of time, took the place of its milder and more humane antecedent, “presting.” The “prest” man disappeared, and in his stead there came upon the scene his later substitute the “pressed” man, “forced,” as Pepys so graphically describes his condition, “against all law to be gone.” An odder coincidence than this gradual substitution of “pressed” for prest, or one more grimly appropriate in its application, it would surely be impossible to discover in the whose history of nomenclature.

Yet another example of the remarkable workings of coincidence, that resented but ubiquitous factor in human affairs.


  1. In traditional Chinese text-interpretation this sort of coincidence is heavily used as a source of meaning. For example, one word pronounced “ming” meant “bright, prominent, intelligent”. A different “ming” means “name” — so names make people prominent and are a tool of intelligent discrimination. This idea is so wired into the Tao Te Ching that it’s really a primary idea and not a commentarian elaboration.
    Other “mings” mean “birdcall” and “dim”, and they are worked into the interpretation too, sometimes.
    “Prestation” is still normal French, but in English Googles it’s the opposite of the non-existent word post-station (in the sense of after-station).

  2. Richard Hershberger says

    If you are interested in matters nautical from the sailing era, I recommend _The Wooden World_ by N.A.M. Rodger. It is a modern, scholarly, and very readable examination of life in the British navy at the time of the Seven Years’ War (which, I always point out, lasted eight years). Alas, the holy trinity of Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash turns out to be wrong on all three counts. But I hold hope that things had changed by the Napoleonic era.

  3. Of course prêter also means “lend” in Modern French, and I assume that that is/are the actual semantics in play in this case.

  4. There is still a usage in the federal government “imprest fund” which is a (legal) little fund kept on hand for small purchases.

  5. Richard: Thanks! Having just finished an excellent history of that war (Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War) and now embarked on Pynchon’s equally massive novel set in the same period (Mason & Dixon), that’s a very timely recommendation. I’m also a huge fan of Patrick O’Brian; do you read him?

  6. Folquerto says

    How curious! Dutch has a verb “pressen” with two completely different meanings, which reflect the English. Pressen I is the French presser, meaning to press as expecte, and pressen II is the English to prest, with the same meaning as the English verb. So tells us the van Dale dictionary. There is also the verb “persen” which means to press (books, clothing). German on the other hand knows only Pressung and Pression, having meanings like pressen I. It lacks a verb with the meaning to prest. Maybe this is because Germany historically was not a seafaring nation, while England and Holland were always both on the same seas.

  7. Folquerto says

    correction: meaning to press “as expected”.

  8. dungbeattle says

    To take the kings shilling is really a kind of a pressure when thou be at the back of an Tavern, starving, being out of work for a while, so thou will accept the prest of a pressed bob in the hand. Thereby for those of us that never studied the fine art of articulation would be impressed by being pressed to accepting the prest.

  9. I’m impressed by your verbal prestidigitation!

  10. From the days of press/prest gangs with their bags of shillings comes the tankard with the glass bottom.
    Your new-found drinking buddy might drop a shilling in an ordinary pot and only when you’d drunk the King’s health would you discover the shilling that you’d already taken.
    The glass bottom at least gave you a fair chance to refuse to drink.

  11. The custom that taking the recruiter’s money was what made enlistment official was not necessarily restricted to navies. In Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, the hero takes a cash enlistment bonus from the army officer who is his rival in love, and then spends it on drink (supposedly the titular elixir, but actually wine). Fortunately, the woman he loves realizes she loves him just in time and uses her own money to buy back his enlistment. In this (possibly fictional) case the enlistment is revocable, but I suspect that most recruits, like this one, immediately drank some or all of their money and then had no easy way out.
    Nowadays I believe it’s the signature on the military recruiter’s paperwork that makes enlistment official, though taking a cash bonus may suffice for re-enlistment. I wonder if the ‘taking money’ criterion was more appropriate to a semiliterate society.

  12. dungbeattle says

    Once prested, you do not need pressure to press the pen to X the spot. It be so depressing to be impressed by the pressure of the Imprest Hofficer, as you be in your cups.

  13. David Marjanović says

    German does have a word for simply kidnapping people (without paying them even symbolically) and making them sailors that way (not necessarily for the military, AFAIK): schanghaien. The etymology is, I think, obvious. 🙂

  14. English has not only shanghai but also slow boat to China, which is metaphorically a place to put someone where they won’t be heard from for a while, either for romantic purposes (as in the Frank Loesser song) or more villainously.

  15. marie-lucie says

    French la prestation

    This word has a variety of meanings (see TLFI), which are more or less reducible to various aspects of “providing” rather than “lending”, but mostly:

    – legally defined payment or benefit (to or from a government agency, landlord, etc); eg family allowances, unemployment benefits, utility charges added to rent;
    – individual performance (especially in a show, concert, etc) .

  16. marie-lucie says

    pressgang, etc

    In Voltaire’s Candide, the (anti)hero, banished from the estate where he happily grew up, encounters a group of soldiers who induce him to have a drink to the health of the king and immediately inform him that he is now a soldier in the king’s service.

  17. From Etymonline, s.v. culprit:

    1670s, ‘person arraigned for a crime or offense’, according to legal tradition from Anglo-French cul prit, a contraction of Culpable: prest (d’averrer nostre bille) ‘guilty, ready (to prove our case)’, words used by prosecutor in opening a trial. It seems the abbreviation cul. prit was mistaken in English for an address to the defendant.

    Meaning ‘a criminal, an offender’ (1769) is, according to OED, “A change of sense, apparently due to popular etymology, the word being referred directly to L. culpa ‘fault, offense’.

  18. King of Prussia liked having really tall Grenadiers in his army, so his recruiting agents roamed all over Europe kidnapping any tall man they happened to meet and pressing into king’s service.

    They kidnapped Mikhailo Lomonosov (great scientist was seven feet tall) on his way home from the German university when he had a drink with them in a tavern and he spent some time in Prussian uniform. Fortunately he managed to desert and cross the border before he was caught.

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