Q: Hello, my hearties. My husband, who had a recording company for years, was writing about an album of sea chanties he recorded when his spellchecker changed it to “sea shanties.” Surprised, he typed “sea chantey or sea shanty?” in Google and was told the proper spelling was “shanty.” How does this kind of nonsense take hold?
A: You’d better batten down the hatches before reading on. All 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult consider “shanty” an acceptable spelling of the word for a sailor’s song.
All five of the American dictionaries have entries for “chantey,” with standard variant spellings given as “chanty,” “shanty,” and “shantey.” All five British dictionaries list “shanty” as the only standard spelling, though one includes “chantey” as an “archaic North American” usage.
No matter how it’s spelled, the musical term is usually pronounced the same, SHAN-tee, in the US and the UK, according to the dictionaries.
Interestingly, the word was spelled with both “ch-” and “sh-” when it showed up in English in the mid-19th century. Here are the two earliest examples in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence:
“The anchor came to the bow with the chanty of ‘Oh, Riley, Oh’ ” (Seven Years of a Sailor’s Life, 1867, by George Edward Clark).
“Sailors’ Shanties and Sea-Songs” (an article in Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts, Dec. 11, 1869).
As for the origin of the spelling, the OED says the musical terms “shanty,” “chanty,” and “chantey” are “said to be a corruption of French chantez, imperative of chanter to sing.” The dictionary defines the usage as “a sailor’s song, esp. one sung during heavy work.”
Why is an English word derived from the French chantez often spelled “shanty”? Perhaps because “shanty” comes closer than “chantey” to the pronunciation of the French word: shahn-TAY.
However, it’s natural for English words of foreign origin to take on new spellings, pronunciations, meanings, forms, and so on. For example, why should an English speaker now spell and pronounce “afraid” as effrayé because both terms ultimately come from the Old French verb esfreer?
As for the word meaning a small, crudely built shack, all 10 standard dictionaries agree that it should be spelled “shanty.” It’s also believed to come from a French word beginning with “ch”—in this case, chantier, Canadian French for a hut in a lumber camp.
The OED cites this English translation from the chantier entry in Dictionnaire Canadien-Français (1894), by Sylva Clapin: “an establishment regularly organized in the forests in winter for the felling of trees; the head-quarters at which the woodcutters assemble after their day’s work.”
The first Oxford example, which we’ll expand here, is from the journal of Zerah Hawley, a Connecticut doctor who spent a year in Ohio in the early 19th century.
In an entry dated Oct. 7, 1820, Hawley describes visiting “a child sick of the intermittent fever, whose parents with two children, lived in what is here called a shanty. This is a hovel of about 10 feet by 8, made somewhat in the form of an ordinary cow-house.”