What do you call a sailor?

topic posted Fri, July 24, 2009 - 11:00 AM by  velvet brick
What do you call a sailor?

A quick check of Ye Olde Merriam – Webster’s turned up the following:

Sailor – in use c. 1577. One that sails, a mariner or seaman. This would be a “new word” around the Queen’s court.

Mariner – in use c. 14th century.

Seaman – in use c. before the 12th century.

Pirate – in use c. 14th century as “to attempt”, later came to denote one who commits piracy.

Piracy – in use c. 1537. An act of robbery on the high seas.

Privateer – in use c. 1664. A private ship licensed to attack enemy shipping. Also the term used to denote a sailor on such a private vessel. NOTE: This is a post-Elizabethan word.

Sea dog – in use c. 1823. A veteran sailor. NOTE: a very post-Elizabethan word.

SO, in the context of an Elizabethan historically based faire, if one is looking for the best way to refer to:

1) Guys on boats in general (commonly called sailors).
2) Those folks in frock coats and tricorn hats with Jolly Rogers (commonly called pirates).
3) Persons such as Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh (often referred to as either Sea dogs or privateers).

What words does one use among the cast and with patrons?

How do you differentiate the “pirates” from the “Sea dogs” from the Captains of Her Majesty’s navy when speaking to patrons in a way that is historically in the ball park and still understandable or do you just not bother and call ‘em like ya see’em in modern terms?

Any thoughts? Other words to use? Other sources?

  • Re: What do you call a sailor?

    Fri, July 24, 2009 - 11:32 AM
    Since I have only recently learned the vintage of "Privateer", I'm working on eliminating it from my vocabulary.

    Since "Pirate" is perfectly valid, I'll use that to refer to sea bandits (when they're not on my side).

    For the rest I'll use sailors, seamen and mariners interchangeably.

    I've never used "Sea Dogs" on stage. Never sounded quite right.

    If I have to refer to the activities of famous "good" Pirates like Drake or Hawkins, they defend England by hampering the shipping and commerce of its enemies.
  • Re: What do you call a sailor?

    Fri, July 24, 2009 - 11:34 AM
    Here's some info from the OED:

    Sailer (with an e) is earlier:
    a1400-50 Alexander 4359 We ere na sailers on e see to sell ne to byi. c1400 Destr. Troy 4589 All softe was the see to sailers erin. 1513 DOUGLAS Æneis I. iii. 43 On the huge deip quhen [= wheen, few] salaris did appear [Virg. adparent rari nantes in gurgite vasto].

    Tar is 17thc.

    Seaman is indeed ancient - the OE word is found in Beowulf: Garas stodon, sæmanna searo samod ætgædere.

    Sea dog is defined in the OED as: "A privateer or pirate, esp. of the time of Queen Elizabeth I" but they don't give any examples prior to 1659

    Pirate - here are some 16th c examples: 1522 J. CLERK in H. Ellis Orig. Lett. Eng. Hist. (1846) 3rd Ser. I. 312 Pirats, Mores, and other infidels. 1561 R. EDEN tr. M. Cortes Arte Nauigation Pref. j, Pilotes (I saie) not Pirottes, Rulers, not Rouers.

    The OED does not give examples of privateer prior to 1641.

    Marine was synonymous with mariner or sailer: c1575 J. HOOKER Life Sir P. Carew (1857) 33 He had in his ship a hundred marines, the worst of them being able to be a master in the best ship within the realm.

    A Pilot would be the navigator and/or helmsman (not necc. the captain)

    A captain, btw, was still a military title in period - it would not have applied to the master of a merchant vessel, only a military one. Captain could also apply to the man in charge of a section of the crew or ship ("captain of the forecastle")

    I know that many of you who specialize in this area can add and extrapolate on this!
    • Re: What do you call a sailor?

      Fri, July 24, 2009 - 3:51 PM
      HI Rebecca,

      Thanks for the OED info.

      That seems to certify "pirate" as period useful, (love the "pirotte" spelling :-) but I still have my doubts about "sea dog" and "privateer".

  • Re: What do you call a sailor?

    Fri, July 24, 2009 - 2:36 PM
    >Sea dog – in use c. 1823. A veteran sailor. NOTE: a very post-Elizabethan word. <

    While Sea Dog has come to mean a common sailor it is a perfectly valid Elizabethan term. In Elizabeth's time it referred to a group of Nobles and merchants who took on the role of an ex officio navy.

    The Sea Dogs included men like Sir Francis Drake, John Hawkins, Sir Walter Raleigh and others who sailed with the blessings of the crown to raid and otherwise harass the enemies of England.
    • Re: What do you call a sailor?

      Fri, July 24, 2009 - 3:08 PM
      The Oxford article you reference notes:
      "The romantic name used to describe them—probably derived from the contemporary English seaman's colloquial term for a shark—is first recorded in 1659, though it was doubtless in circulation earlier."

      So it may or may not have been in use in period, although period people were later described as such.
    • Re: What do you call a sailor?

      Fri, July 24, 2009 - 3:36 PM
      HI Joe,

      Thanks for the links.

      I had seen the words used in the 20th cent. books your linked to, but these are written well after Elizabeth's death. I have not yet seen either of them in an Elizabethan period document or a direct reference to one as being used to describe such men as Drake and Raleigh.

      It seems that the term "sea dog" may indeed have been an Elizabethan word for shark, but is there any evidence that the word was applied to Drake, Raleigh and others as a title or epithet by their contemporaries in the manner it gets heard at faires today as "There go Her Majesty's Sea Dogs!" or "Don't call me a pirate, I am a sea dog." or "The Sea dogs have returned"...

      Both your references and several dictionaries seem to agree that the term does not seem to be used until after Queen Elizabeth's death...while some of these famous sea farers outlived the queen and may have heard themselves called "sea dogs" in the 1600s, was it actually used during Elizabeth's lifetime? Was this term used in state papers or personal letters of the time?

      Still looking,
      • Hal
        offline 0

        Re: What do you call a sailor?

        Fri, July 24, 2009 - 7:27 PM
        Wikipedia seems to make a good case for "Sea Beggars" being a multilingual name for sailors in the service of the Dutch rebels, some of whom I imagine were English:

        Sea Beggars

        William I of Orange

        In 1569 William of Orange, who had now openly placed himself at the head of the party of revolt, granted letters of marque to a number of vessels manned by crews of desperadoes drawn from all nationalities. These fierce privateers under the command of a succession of daring and reckless leaders, the best-known of whom is William de la Marck, Lord of Lumey, were called Sea Beggars, Gueux de mer in French, or Watergeuzen in Dutch. At first they were content to merely plunder both by sea and land, and carrying their booty to the English ports where they were able to refit and replenish their stores.

        However, in 1572 Queen Elizabeth abruptly refused to admit the Sea Beggars to her harbours. No longer having refuge, they made a desperate attack upon Brielle, which they seized by surprise in the absence of the Spanish garrison on April 1, 1572. Encouraged by this surprising success, they now sailed to Flushing, which was also taken by a coup de main. The capture of these two towns gave the signal for a general revolt of the Netherlands, and is regarded as the real beginning of Dutch independence.

        In 1573 the Sea Beggars defeated a Spanish squadron under the command of Admiral Bossu off the port of Hoorn in the Battle on the Zuiderzee. Mixing with the native population, they quickly sparked rebellions against "the Iron Duke" in town after town and spread the resistance southward.

        Some of the forefathers of the great Dutch naval heroes began their naval careers as Sea Beggars, such as Evert Heindricxzen, the grandfather of Cornelis Evertsen the Elder. Many Geuzen medals were awarded.
      • Re: What do you call a sailor?

        Sat, July 25, 2009 - 7:47 AM
        Vel - I am searching through my own library. I know that I have read in at least one of my biographies of Drake or perhaps one of the histories of the Armada references to the Sea Dogs under that name as a semi formal group. Its tough going because I have read so many and I hope it wasn't one of those damaged when we had some flooding a while back.

        I will post as soon as I find something.
        • Re: What do you call a sailor?

          Sun, July 26, 2009 - 3:46 PM
          Thanks Joe.

          • Re: What do you call a sailor?

            Sun, July 26, 2009 - 3:58 PM
            HI Folks,

            In the course of trying to find these words used in Elizabethan period documents I did a full text search of all of the documents available at British History Online at (which includes such things as the Elizabethan era Journals of the House of Lords, Journals of the House of Commons, Elizabethan era Calendar of State Papers, Calendar of the Cecil Papers from 1306 to 1668, etc) which showed the following word usage:

            Mariner – multiple uses in various documents of the Elizabethan period both within the Queen’s court and out.

            Sailor – multiple uses in various documents of the Elizabethan period both within the Queen’s court and out.

            Pirate – multiple uses in various documents of the Elizabethan period both within the Queen’s court and out.

            Privateer – does not appear in documents prior to the late 1650s and only turns up in relation to the Elizabethan period in a modernly written index description of a person.

            Seadog or sea dog – does not appear at all in any English source material of any period prior to the 1900s. (Only appears in two modernly written introductions to material re: the Armada.)

            The ONLY appearance of the term “Seadog” (or sea-dog, sea dog, seadogs, etc) that turned up in a period document is in the modern English translation of a letter written in Paris by a Venetian regarding English preparations for the arrival of the Armada:

            April 8. Original Dispatch, Venetian Archives. From: 'Venice: April 1588', Calendar of State Papers Relating to English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 8: 1581-1591 (1894), pp. 347-351. URL: dogs Date accessed: 26 July 2009.

            648. Giovanni Mocenigo, Venetian Ambassador in France, to the Doge and Senate:
            ”… The Queen has one hundred and twenty ships afloat, besides the tenders. Of these twenty-five are her own ships, armed and found to perfection. The whole is under the command of the admiral, assisted by Francis Drake. The captains of each ship are princes and great nobles of the kingdom, who strive with one another for the posts. This fleet is cruising in the English Channel, and making reaches to the shores of Scotland on account of that suspicion which is ever a trusty ally in all great movements. For though the Queen, for many reasons, can now rest confident in the King of Scotland, still she always bears in her breast the conviction that the first designs of Spain had their origin and foundation in the hope which they indulged that the King would open to them the road into her kingdom. The intention of the English is, in the event of the accord in Flanders falling through, as is now fully expected, to attack the Spanish Armada should it attempt the kingdom of England. But although one hears of great preparations, yet it is generally held that the King of Spain will not undertake so vast an enterprise; and that, although most justly angered, he will not, from desire of vengeance, entrust to the issue of a doubtful battle, the quiet and freedom of so many of his states and kingdoms. For he very well knows how much consideration ought to be paid to such a fleet as the English fleet, both on account of its size, and also because the English are men of another mettle from the Spaniards, and enjoy the reputation of being, above all the Western nations, expert and active in all naval operations, and great sea dogs.

            Last section in the original language:
            [viene communemente creduto che il Re di Spagna non intraprenderà cosi grande impresa, et che se bene quella Maestà è guistamente provocato, giudicasi che non vorrà per desiderio di vendetta metter a rischio d' una battaglia dubbia et incerta la quieta et libertà de molti suoi stati et Regni; sapendosi bene quanto si dovesse stimar un' armata simile per il numero de vasselli et per essere gl' Inglesi huomini d' altra prestantia che li Spagnoli tenendo loro il nome sopra tutti gli altri di Ponente d' essere assueti et industriosi a tutti i fatti di marina et sopra il mare grandissimi guerrieri]

            NOTE: if the term literally used in the original letter was “sea dog” one would expect to see a word or words akin to dog such as “canis”, “caninus” or “canicula” in the original which does not appear; rather the words used are “grandissimi guerrieri” (great warriors). Perhaps someone who is better with the original language can see something that would be readily translated as “sea dogs”…

            IF it does indeed say “seadogs”, in this one usage found, the Venetian ambassador looks to be referring to ALL English sailors as “seadogs” with the meaning of good and experienced sailors. He does not appear to be talking specifically about such men as Drake and Raleigh.

            So, it would seem that the term “sea dog” may or may not have been in use in the late 1580s by the Venetians and possibly the French as a term for referring to good or experienced sailors, but it still does not answer the question of whether the English used it to described themselves and specifically if they used it to describe a certain elite group of seamen/adventurers/privateers such as Drake and Raleigh…

            To my mind, the total lack of the term in the Cecil Papers (in which the words mariner, sailor and pirate are all used repeatedly) despite the fact that Drake, Raleigh and others commonly referred to as “sea dogs” are mentioned by several privy councilors and courtiers seems to suggest that the term was NOT in common use in the Queen’s court to describe these famous sea captains or any other sailor.

            Granted, absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence – but the lack does suggest that it was at least not commonly used.

            Anyone see Seadog used somewhere else in period?

  • Re: What do you call a sailor?

    Fri, July 24, 2009 - 8:25 PM
    Here's a thought: the word privateer apparently comes from "private," with the privateers operating outside of the military, using their letters of marque to gain the legitimacy that a military commission would have otherwise given them, to take over and seize other vessels. We know that the idea of a British navy was in its infancy in period and that there was not as clear a line between private and public ships; given this, the public/private distinction inherent in the word "privateer" would not have been a concept that was yet needed.

    Yet there were letters of marque; can we look at some period samples of these to see what terminology was used? (Marquesmen? :-D)
    • Re: What do you call a sailor?

      Sat, July 25, 2009 - 7:55 AM
      This is the wikipedia entry:

      My understanding is that the reprisal aspect was to allow a ship owner to reclaim value from a company or government equivalent to that they have lost to the actions of said government or country.

      For a fuller explanation see - The Pirate Queen: Queen Elizabeth I, Her Pirate Adventurers, and the Dawn of Empire by Susan Ronald.
      • Re: What do you call a sailor?

        Sun, July 26, 2009 - 2:49 PM
        I've been reading this recently, and it seems the word we probably want for privateer is corsair. They are corsairs in her majestie's service
        • Re: What do you call a sailor?

          Sun, July 26, 2009 - 4:55 PM
          HI Maggie,

          Based on a search of the documents available at - Corsair as a word does appear in Elizabethan period documents but not very often in those of English origin and when it does it seems to exclusively refer to foreign pirates and not to Englishmen. It does not look like the Queen would a have called Drake or Raleigh "her corsairs"any more than she would have called them her sea dogs...

          Drake and other English sea capts are frequently refered to in these documents as "corsairs" by the rulers and ambassadors of Spain and Venice but always in the context of corsair =pirate.

          Drake is called "the famous corsair" in Spanish correspondence but not in anything of English origin in the documents collection.

          I could be wrong, but it looks to me like calling Drake and Raleigh "corsairs" is calling them "Pirates" not privateers...


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