Saturday, June 12, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Midshipman

We talk about Mids all the time around here at Triple P and it occurred to me this morning that I've never actually defined the term. Dragging out the Sailor's Word Book, I went straight for the M's and found that there's more than one way to use this officer's title aboard ship. So it's Midshipman today, Brethren. Plus, it gives me a chance to use this picture of cute-as-a-button Mr. Blakney from Master and Commander. (In the books, he wasn't the Mid that lost his arm by the way; that was Mr. Reade.)

A Midshipman is essentially a naval cadet. They are appointed to their ship and can number as many as the vessel has room for. The Captain is given the right to bring one Mid of his choosing aboard ship with him. Boys as young at seven might be appointed to the post but generally the age for entering the service was between ten and thirteen.

In theory, a Mid had to pass an exam before joining a ship's company. Some boys from well established families, however, got to skip this formality (Thomas Cochrane is a good example). A boy who had a fair amount of merchant service under his belt might also have the exam waved (David Porter, who had been at sea for close to seven years prior to joining the U.S. Navy, for instance). Finally, there was the trick of logging "book time" where a boy's name would be entered into the ship's books even though he was at home attending to his studies. This made him eligible for the rank of Midshipman despite never having been at sea before (this was the case with William Hoste).

There was no getting past the Lieutenant's exam, however. A young man ready to move up to the next level had to pass two strict tests, one on gunnery and one on seamanship. It was no easy task and, much like modern driver's tests, many a young man failed and had to come back six months later to try again.

On a ship with a good Captain, Mids were well educated. They learned not only seamanship but reading, writing, manners and sometimes even music. Frequently, the ship's Minister or Priest looked after the young men's education but sometimes the Captain took it on himself. The gunner, or in many instances his wife, was in charge of their personal well being (thus, some say, the moniker "son of a gun").

Midshipmen, whose title comes from the middle part of their vessel also known as her waist, were a source of amusement for old salts. Many a joke was made at their expense. A Midshipman's roll was a poorly stowed hammock. Midshipman's nuts were hardtack broken into pieces and eaten for dessert.

Finally, the U.S. Naval Academy sports teams are known as The Midshipmen. Or, more familiarly, the Goats (because goats were often taken aboard men-of-war for fresh milk and cheese - and in a pinch, meat). Beats that Army Mule, I'd say.

Fair winds this Saturday, mates. I'll spy you in the week ahead.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! As Max Pirkis, the actor who played Midshipman Lord Blakeney is now 21 years old, he probably wouldn't like being called "cute-as-a-button" anymore, but that's the beauty of movies isn't it? None of us look the way we did 10 years ago, do we Pirate Queen?

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! As I would tell my own children: Mr. Pirkis, you were cute-as-a-button. Deal with it.

Munin said...

It's always fun to discover a well known word or phrase has nautical origins. It seems to happen with alarming regularity. "Son of a gun" indeed. :)

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Munin! I think so too and I'm betting it's the case for most European languages at the very least. It seems all continents have grand seafaring traditions, though, so I'm sure that's only the tip of the iceberg.