Are you enjoying sea shanties these days?
When it comes to popular music, we’re used to hip-hop, indie rock, and even K-pop topping the charts.
But we really didn’t expect the newest trend to be a genre that was out of fashion 150 years ago.
Yes, the hot tunes of the moment are … sea shanties.
What is a sea shanty?
Sea shanties are songs that sailors sang while they worked. Sailors sang shanties as they worked pumps up and down, removing water from the hold of the ship. They sang shanties as they heaved on the heavy ropes that dragged a new sail into place. They sang shanties as they sanded the decks in the earliest hours of the morning, or turned the capstan that pulled the heavy iron anchor up from the ocean floor.
Whatever the task, it was hard, and it was done by hand. And it often had to be done rhythmically. It wouldn’t do if half the men sheeting a sail into place pulled on a rope, while the other half relaxed. Everyone had to pull together; reset their hands higher on the rope; and then pull again.
Singing a shanty was an effective way to keep men working in synch. To keep everyone in time, the singing was led by a “shantyman.” He would sing a brief verse, and the sailors would follow with a chorus, often giving their greatest push or pull on the chorus’s ending word. Here’s an example that makes fun of Napoleon Bonaparte, whom British sailors called “Old Boney.” (2)
Shantyman: Boney was a warrior,
Crew: Way, hey, ya!
Shantyman: A warrior and a terrier,
Sometimes, the shantyman would improvise his verses, and according to “The Shanty Book: Part I,” “once the improvisation began, things became so intimate and personal as to be unprintable.” (1) For men stuck at sea for months on end, deprived of female company, you can only imagine just how unprintable the lyrics became.
Lewd or not, these songs kept the men entertained through hours of painful labor, relieved their boredom, and kept them pushing or pulling in time.
Sea Shanties + TikTok = ShantyTok
So why are we singing sea shanties today? Blame it on TikTok, the social platform that lets users share short videos, often of themselves singing or dancing.
It seems that one user, a Scottish postman named Nathan Evans, posted a video of himself singing “The Wellerman,” a traditional sea shanty. There’s nothing fancy about the video. It’s Evans, shot in black and white, sitting in a chair, singing. Yet the mysterious force that causes some videos to go viral came over this one.
Mr. Evans now has half a million followers on TikTok and more than three million views of his videos.
And because TikTok is a participatory medium, users have been doing more than just watch his videos. They’ve created ones of their own, spawning a slew of new videos featuring people all over the world singing and dancing to old-time sea shanties—or creating new ones.
What’s the etymology of ‘sea shanty’?
All of this is fascinating, but why are we talking about sea shanties on the podcast? It’s because of the uncertain etymology of the word “shanty”—and the debate it created some hundred years ago.
You see, even though shanties have been sung for centuries, the word doesn’t appear in print until 1869. It was sometimes spelled with an “sh” and sometimes with a “ch.” And because “shanty” sounds similar to “chanter,” the French word meaning “to sing,” some folks put two and two together and decided that “shanty” was derived from this French word. Seems logical, right?
Problem is, many Britishers of that time simply weren’t having it. Twenty-three years of fighting against the French in the Napoleonic Wars had left a bad taste in their mouths. Neither British seamen nor scholars were about to give the French credit for what they considered a native British art form.
One writer at the time derided the spelling of “shanty” with a “ch” (which would align with “chanter”), calling it a “landsman’s spelling.” “To my mind,” he wrote, “the strongest argument against the literary landsman’s derivation of the word is that the British sailor cultivated the supremest contempt for everything French.” (1)
Another writer made a similar argument. “As to the spelling of ‘shanty,’” he said, “I see no reason why, because shore people have fancied a derivation of the word and written it 'chanty,' I should follow. It was not so pronounced at sea, and to spell it so is misleading.” You can hear the derision in his voice when he writes of “shore people.”
Moreover, this writer says, he has “good reason for supposing that the presumed French derivation of this word is wrong.” He doesn’t share that reason, mind you, but you can imagine his knowing look while saying so. (2)
So if “shanty” doesn’t come from the French “chanter,” where did it come from?
Shanty songs vs. shanty huts
One explanation is offered by a sailor who lived for years in the West Indies and witnessed the process by which locals moved their huts—also called “shanties”—from place to place.
According to this witness, the shanty was levered onto a wheeled platform, to which two long ropes were attached. A “shantyman” would mount the hut and sang a song that was, he wrote, “an exact musical parallel of a seaman’s ‘pull-and-haul’ shanty.” The helpers holding the ropes would “sing the chorus, giving a pull on the rope at the required points in the music, just as sailors did when hauling at sea.” (1)
So this is a possible but thin explanation for the derivation of the “shanty” in “sea shanty.” But even if it were true, we have some bad news for the sailor who proposed it.
It seems that the word “shanty,” meaning “a hut,” is also derived from a French word: “chantier,” meaning a lumberjack’s camp or workyard. Oops.
Long story short, we don’t know the etymology of the term “sea shanty.” Either way, it seems possible that although the British won the Napoleonic Wars, they lost this linguistic battle against the French.
A shanty celebrating teachers
And to finish, Grammar Girl got so excited about a teacher being in the people's house that she wrote an original sea shanty about it (and learned how to use TikTok).
I got so excited thinking about an English teacher being in the people’s house that I wrote a shanty about it! #shanty #wellington #joy #teacher ♬ original sound - user6368370717657
- Terry, Richard Runciman. The Shanty Book, Part 1: Sailor Shanties. London: J. Curwen & Sons Ltd., 1921. Accessed January 18, 2021.
- Johnson, Ben. Sea Shanties. Historic UK: The History and Heritage Accommodation Guide. Historic-UK.com. Accessed January 18, 2021.
- Oxford English Dictionary. Shanty. Available by subscription. Accessed January 18, 2021.
- Whall, W.B. Ships, Sea Songs, and Shanties. J. Brown & Son, 1913. Accessed January 18, 2021.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.