The Grammarphobia Blog

Is there a fox in the forecastle?

Q: One day recently, I was listening to a British chap talking about boating, and he used the word “forecastle. ” It struck me that the British pronunciation of “forecastle” is remarkably similar to “foxhole.” Could there be a relationship?

A: Nope, there’s no “fox” in “forecastle.” And the FOLK-s’l pronunciation, which originated among sailors, is common in the United States as well as in Britain.

British dictionaries usually list FOLK-s’l as the only pronunciation of “forecastle.” American dictionaries generally list FOLK-s’l first, followed by FOR-cass-ul.

The word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is also sometimes “written fo’c’sle, after sailors’ pronunc.”

Some standard dictionaries define “forecastle” as simply the front part of a ship, but most say it can be either the forward part of the upper deck or the area in the bow of a merchant ship where the crew lives.

The OED adds that the term once referred to a short elevated forward deck that was “raised like a castle to command the enemy’s decks,” but the dictionary says this usage is now considered obsolete.

The word entered English in the late 1400s as a combination of the prefix “fore-“ and the noun “castle.”

Why “castle”? Because a now-obsolete meaning of “castle,” according to Oxford, was “a tower or elevated structure on the deck of a ship.”

The OED’s first citation is from William Caxton’s 1490 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Theyr chyeff maryner … was halfe a slepe vpon the forcastell.”

As for “foxhole,” the military term first showed up during World War I, according to published references in the dictionary.

The first citation is from an April 29, 1919, article in the Red Cross Magazine: “The bitter weeks of the Argonne when the same Yank lay hungry, cold, wet, and exhausted in some insufficient fox-hole.”

The dictionary defines the term as “a hole in the ground used by a soldier for protection; a slit trench.”

However, the OED has citations dating back to around 950 for the term (foxes holo in Old English) used literally to mean “an excavation made in the ground for habitation by an animal, as the fox or badger.”

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