Q: Pat was skeptical on WNYC when a caller suggested that “son of a gun” originated in seafaring days and referred to an illegitimate child conceived on the gun deck of a naval ship. The caller may be correct. I’ve seen the same explanation in Patrick O’Brian’s sea stories.
A: O’Brian (or one of his fictional characters) may have said something about “son of a gun” in one of the Stephen Maturin novels. We haven’t examined them all, so we can’t say. And we can’t find the expression in our copy of A Sea of Words, Dean King’s lexicon and companion to O’Brian’s seafaring tales.
There is a bit of evidence to support the naval explanation of the phrase, but this evidence is pretty slim and we’re doubtful about it.
The expression first showed up in print, as far as we know, in a 1708 issue of The British Apollo, a short-lived periodical that answered questions from readers.
One of the questions, written in verse, begins this way: “You Apollo’s Son, / You’r a Son of a Gun.” (The writer asks about the number of feet on the lice that inhabit human scalps.)
There’s no indication from the question that the phrase “son of a gun” has anything to do with illegitimate children or sailing ships.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the expression as simply “a somewhat depreciatory term for ‘man, fellow.’ ”
Most of the OED’s early examples use the expression to mean a coarse or rough man.
Here’s an 1840 citation from The Ingoldsby Legends, a collection of supernatural stories by the poet and novelist Richard Harris Barham:
“We heard the rough voice of a son of a gun / Of a watchman, ‘one o’clock!’ bawling.”
The only OED citation to suggest a naval origin of the expression is from The Sailor’s Word-Book (1867), William Henry Smyth’s dictionary of nautical terms:
“Son of a gun, an epithet conveying contempt in a slight degree, and originally applied to boys born afloat, when women were permitted to accompany their husbands to sea; one admiral declared he literally was thus cradled, under the breast of a gun-carriage.”
Although Smyth was an admiral and should have known about naval language, his lexicon didn’t appear until nearly 160 years after the expression first showed up in print.
Women did sometimes travel on British warships during the seafaring age.
In Jane Austen’s 1817 novel Persuasion, for example, we learn that Admiral Croft was regularly accompanied by his wife. (Austen knew about naval life since two of her brothers were admirals.)
So, yes, there’s a little evidence to support the naval origin of the expression, but we think “son of a gun” is simply a rhyming euphemism for “son of a bitch.”
We’ve written before on our blog about the common practice of using mild, euphemistic versions of stronger oaths (like “gosh darn it” for “God damn it,” or “goshamighty” for “God almighty”).
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