Boaty McBoatface? Lame, Say the Shades of Countless Generations of Mariners

So Boaty McBoatface won the vote, then. Quelle surprise.

Just about the one and only reason I wish I could still be alive in two hundred years time is to see how the maritime historians of that era (assuming that there are such things then; i.e. both maritime historians and eras) interpret this bizarre phenomenon of our times. Maybe they’ll be conveying their thoughts via hologramatic snapvlogs on Tweetbook, in between complaining bitterly about its fiendishly impenetrable privacy settings; or perhaps they’ll be publishing weighty megatheses, all of 140 characters long, via peer reviewed journals controlled by exactly the same academic publishers as at present, who by then will be rich enough to own several sub-continents each.

In a way, though, I’ve watched this entire car crash (or, if you prefer a maritime analogy, yet another example of ‘Titanic 0, Iceberg 1’) with a distinct sense of deja vu. The fact is that ship names have caused grief for centuries, and always will: witness Charles II’s rapid rebranding of the Naseby as the Royal Charles at the Restoration, or King George V’s categorical rejection of Churchill’s suggestion that a battleship should be named Oliver Cromwell. I’ve blogged before on this site about some of the eccentricities of warship naming, but last week I was reading a fairly obscure doctoral thesis on the subject, which included some interesting snippets. I didn’t know, for example, that in the 1970s there was an argument between the First Sea Lord and the Controller of the Navy over whether to name one of the new Type 22 frigates (then all intended to have ‘B’ names) HMS Boadicea. No doubt one of them thought this was a fine, historic name with a strong naval pedigree, while the other could probably envisage legions of enraged classicists besieging the Ministry of Defence, screaming ‘It’s Boudicca!’ It seems that some of the other names envisaged for Type 22s were the distinctly feeble Brigand, Bayonet and Bowstring, the latter being a reference to the criteria then (and perhaps still) in force for naming HM ships: ‘they must be easily understood and pronounced by the sailor, must not be open to ribald mispronunciation, eg Boreas, and should preferably imply tautness, valour, enterprise, vigour, etc.’

Ribaldly mispronounce Boreas? Hmm, I wonder if they did that back in the day when the commanding officer of a ship of that name was a certain H Nelson…

Enraged classicists storm the offices housing the Ships Names Committee

Enraged classicists storm the offices housing the Ships Names Committee

The thesis in question also directed me to an interesting article published in The Gentleman’s Magazine for 1797, which proves the point about ship naming always being a source of contention and, indeed, nautical humour.

[A ship’s name] is frequently of consequence to a British seaman, who will sometimes prefer a ship on account of this nominal distinction. I could wish, therefore, that some attention was paid, both to the prejudices and literary talents of our tars, who are so often perplexed in the pronunciation of Greek and Roman names, that they often alter them, in a burlesque manner, to terms which are more familiar to their ears, such as the Alehouse for Aeneas, Eggs and Bacon for Agamemnon, and Pol Famous for Polyphemus. The ortheopy of French names embarrasses them as much…as, the Bonny Pheasant for Bienfaisant, the Horseshoe for L’Oiseau, and Willy, as an abridgement of Ville de Paris; or, if no capricious change strike their fancy, they always articulate every letter in a French word, thus, Belle Poule is pronounced Belly Pouly. 

The author goes on to note the different qualities implied by types of name – for instance, the use of classical models (Minotaur, Centaur, etc), ‘qualities which imply valour and bravery’ (Formidable, Victorious, Invincible, etc), ‘the vices and evil qualities’ (Revenge, Vengeance, Arrogant, etc), mammals, fish and other creatures (Lion, Tiger, Grampus etc), rivers, battles, and successful naval officers – although it’s revealing that even in 1797, an author was complaining about the relative paucity of the last of these, a complaint that’s often been made about the modern navy. So it seems that when it comes to ship names, pretty much every contentious choice is a case of what goes around, comes around. In that context, the Boaty McBoatface row is distinctly small beer, and the proposed name appears almost respectable – especially as, within the last hundred years, the Royal Navy has boasted both a HMS Pansy and a HMS Spanker.

HMS Spanker. Ooh, matron.

HMS Spanker. Ooh, matron.

Having said that, the ‘popular vote’ for Boaty McBoatface wasn’t ‘democracy’ in any shape or form, and those earnest newspaper columnists who’ve written lengthy screeds about what it tells us about modern Britain have largely missed the point (principally because none of them, as far as I could see, had any grasp of the history and context of ship naming). To take just one of the interpretations that’s been suggested in print: yes, up to a point this entire saga has been a manifestation of the good old British sense of humour, and good old British cussedness. Indeed, I was minded to cast a vote myself at one point, and to cast it for Boaty. Take that, George Osborne, and next stop, the barricades!

But this theory only works up to a point. Because this was a hysterical bandwagon of the Internet age, plain and simple, originating in a poll that had an idiotic basic premise (as any experienced school teacher could have told the National Environment Research Council: never, ever, let kids choose their own test questions and answers), begun by one person who swiftly regretted what he’d done, taken up by a few people with too much time on their hands (i.e. the time to actually notice that one left-field nomination on the NERC website was the name in question, and to be bothered to cast the earliest votes for it), taken up in turn by others who thought it was a pretty neat joke, plastered all over websites and social media, and then turned into a viral national game. The sensible people of the seventeenth century had a word for such a phenomenon: they called it ‘the mob’. And the phenomenon bears about as much resemblance to the examples of real (OK, debatably real) democracy that will be enacted in the United Kingdom on 5 May and 23 June, and in the United States on 8 November, as an Antarctic research ship does to a penguin. Yes, they both occupy the same general vicinity on this planet, but that’s where the similarity ends.

Of course, though, there’s one obvious solution to the Boaty McBoatface issue. You heard it here first, and yes, NERC, I would like a fee, please, and just leave the cheque blank. It’s simply this: we should bear in mind that English isn’t the only official language of the British Isles, and a Welsh translation of Boaty McBoatface – along the lines of Cwch ap Wyneb Gwch** – would have a certain ring to it, wouldn’t be open to mockery by the entire English-speaking world, and should guarantee a warm welcome for the ship in certain southern ports of Argentina, which might not be the case for a British ship with any other name.

And after all, using a Welsh translation as the name has definitely worked out pretty well in the case of the penguin.*



(* In case anybody didn’t know this, ‘penguin’ comes from the two Welsh words ‘pen gwyn’, which mean ‘white head’.)

(** Sorry, Welsh speakers, I know I’ve probably mangled the mutations, but it’s not a bad effort for someone who lost almost all the Welsh he once had over 40 years ago…)


  1. Grant says:

    I’m always quite charmed by the delicacy that the Admiralty showed in translating “cacafuego” as “HMS Spitfire”.


  2. Richard Blake says:

    I believe Churchill tried hard to persuade George the Fifth to approve the naming of a Dreadnaught after one of the Pitts (I think it was the elder but am not sure). George would have none of that as being a seaman he was aware of the penchant for sailors to adapt ships names to cause greatest ribaldry. George assumed the P would be dropped in favour of Sh. One can imagine how the crew would have loved that! Churchill was offended and recorded it was an unworthy thought for a man who was King.


    • J D Davies says:

      Indeed- I’ll be quoting that anecdote in my new book. For reasons I can’t fathom, the King also seems to have rejected the name Hero for one of the super-dreadnoughts of the 1911 programme. I wonder if he was mindful of its association with a particular brand of cigarettes?


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