The history behind strange sayings

SherrifmuirNicola here, talking about odd historical phrases and sayings. The topic came to mind this week because I was reading an article about how the UK is awash with peculiar sayings and I’m sure that other countries and other languages are exactly the same. In fact many families share special phrases that have meaning only for them. Many of these have their roots in historical events. In our family, for instance, there are several sayings with Scots origins, reflecting my husband’s Scots roots. "Save your breath to cool your porridge" is one and, “There were bigger losses at Sheriffmuir” is my all time favourite. This is trotted out frequently when things go wrong in an effort to gain a sense of perspective.

Sherrifmuir was an engagement in the 1715 Jacobite rebellion. It took place on 13th November so we are almost at the anniversary of it. It was an inconclusive fight between the Jacobite army and the British government forces and in fact losses were relatively small compared with Culloden, for instance. In total there were just under 1000 men killed, wounded or captured but the bigger loss was the failure of the 1715 Jacobite rising. My mother-in-law went to school near Sherrifmuir and I wonder whether this was a local phrase. The famous poet Robert Burns, a favourite in our family, wrote a song in honour of the Battle of Sherrifmuir. “Mony a huntit, poor Red-coat / For fear amaist did swarf, man." Indeed.

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A Life on the ocean waves….

Uncountsm Hi, here's Jo, with a bit about starting a career in the Royal Navy way back when.

The quote above — "A life on the ocean wave..." is from 1858, too late for me. And it is "wave," not "waves" as I intstinctively thought, which I find odd. One wave? Was that the way it was said back then? More likely it was poetic licence to rhyme with rave.

A life on the ocean wave! A home on the rolling deep!
Where the scattered waters rave, and the winds their revels keep!

The author of the original poem, Epes Sargent, had at least been to sea, with his father, a ships master. Yes, yes, I followed a research byway. Doesn't one always? You can read about Sargent here.

I have to admit to having little interest in the navy. For some reason it doesn't grab my imagination, and Masterandc I've never been able to get into Patrick O'Brian's novels. I did enjoy the film, Master and Commander, though I've never been much into Russell Crowe. He is a brilliant actor, particularly in physical, manly roles. 

However, we can't always have ex-military heroes be from the army, so I went for the navy for Lord Dracy, the hero of my MIP A Scandalous Countess. (February 2012) The navy fit because he also comes from a poorish family. Gentry, yes, but his father's a clergyman, brother to a Lord Dracy, a small fish in the peerage pond.

As Dracy's left the navy when inheriting the title, I don't have to do too much naval work (I hope — with a story, one never knows) but I did have to know his likely career path, especially when he would have gone into the navy and his likely rank when leaving.

Thirteen seemed a pretty typical age for being signed up, but I pushed it back to twelve because I wanted him there young. As I wrote the book, I realized I needed to know his rank when he left active service, so I went poking around in real naval careers.

Nelson I started with the obvious case, Nelson, 1758-1805. My hero is 26, so what rank did Nelson achieve by that age? Nelson became a midshipman — the lowest officer rank — on HMS Raisonnable in 1771 at the typical age of thirteen. At 17 he was an acting lieutenant, by 19 a full lieutenant, and the same year given command of a tender. At 20, he was Master and Commander of the brig HMS Badger. By 1784, at aged 26, he'd had an active and brilliant naval career and was captain of HMS Boreas, sent to enforce the Navigation Acts around Antigua.

Um, well, Dracy's not like Nelson. Whoever was?

The images are from the Natonal Portrait Gallery.Bligh

I next looked at the famous Captain Bligh. 1754-1817. (I was surprised to find he was older than  Nelson.) He was signed up for the Royal Navy at seven! The implication of the wikipedia article is that this meant he went to sea over the next ten years, at least part time, to get sea-going experience. However, he didn't become a midshipman until aged 17, interestingly in the same year as Nelson. Nelson had aristocratic connections and joined a ship captained by an uncle. Was Blight delayed for lack of influence?

By 26 (1780) Bligh was sailing master (the officer in charge of navigation, and ranked as a lieutenant) on Cook's ship, the Resolution. That was the expedition in which Cook was killed, and in 1780 he returned to London with the sad news.

Wallace These young men were doing remarkable things, as were many of their contemporaries. It's part of why I write about young men in my historicals — the late teens and twenties was where they were most involved in active, exciting lives.I refer you to an article I wrote called In Praise of Younger Men. It was inspired by the injustice of Wallace, in Braveheart, being acted by a middle-aged man. Perhaps someone had been looking at too many Victorian portrayals of the man, who died at about 30 years of age.

In my view, if a Georgian man's still finding himself by his mid to late twenties I'm asking, what's he been doing since about 13?

Questions. What's your feeling on that? Do young heroes seem wrong to you, even if you know how many great achievements belong to the young?

What's your ideal age for the hero in a historical romance?Pellew

Another example is Edward Pellew — 1757-1833, who was a highly regarded naval officer. He joined  the navy in 1770 — aged 13 again. In 1775, aged 18, he got into such an argument with his captain he was put ashore at Marseille. You'd think that would get him court-martialled, but apparently not. Perhaps his arguments were justified. He makes his way home and joins another ship, still a midshipman. By 26, he was post captain of a ship engaged in heroic, active service.

Pearson Richard Pearson was born in 1731,so closer to a contemporary of Dracy's. He's not so prominent, so I couldn't find a great deal, but he did well during the Seven Years War, in which Dracy also serves, but when it ends in 1763, he's still a lieutenant at aged 32. In peacetime he suffered from lack of patronage and only became a post captain in 1773.

Implications for my story.

Dracy went into the navy at aged 12 in 1751, and from 1756 to 1763 was part of the Seven Years War. He does his duty well and rises to first lieutenant by the end of the war, but peacetime presents few opportunities. When he inherits, he leaves the navy with few regrets. He's never fallen in love with ships and the sea, and like Nelson and others, he's always suffered from sea-sickness.

But perhaps 14 years in the navy is good preparation for dealing with Georgia, Lady Maybury, widow, not yet twenty-one, but accustomed to being in command of her life.

Question.

Why do you think there are so many more ex-army men in historical romance? Is the army more romantic than the navy? Is leading a charge more heroic than directing a naval battle?

Oh, by the way, that other famous naval song, Hearts of Oak, the official march of the Royal Navy, dates to the late 1750s, at the beginning of the Seven Years War, so Dracy can refer to it. I remembered to check!  

Interesting that it refers to invasion, always able to stir a Briton's heart.

Come, cheer up, my lads, 'tis to glory we steer,
To add something more to this wonderful year;
To honour we call you, as freemen not slaves,
For who are so free as the sons of the waves?
Heart of oak are our ships, jolly tars are our men,
we always are ready; Steady, boys, steady!Temeraire
We'll fight and we'll conquer again and again.

They swear they'll invade us, these terrible foes,
They frighten our women, our children and beaus,

But should their flat bottoms in darkness get o'er,
Still Britons they'll find to receive them on shore.

Heart of oak are our ships, jolly tars are our men,
we always are ready; Steady, boys, steady!
We'll fight and we'll conquer again and again.

LbfrontsmThe picture is The Fighting Temeraire, by Turner, showing a famous battleship, the last one that had fought at Trafalgar, being towed into harbour to be broken up for scrap.

""And she's fading down the river, But in England's song for ever, She's the Fighting Téméraire." Sir Henry Newbolt. Of course, Naomi Novik took the name Temeraire for her dragon in the series by that name. Brilliant choice.

I can only remember writing one other significant naval character, the hero's brother in Lady Beware. I'll give a copy of that book to a randomly selected commenter on this blog.

An Unlikely Countess has spent four weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list, and done simil

arly well on the other major lists. Thank you!

Jo