If you’re new to the earworm-y maritime-song craze that’s taken over TikTok and other social-media platforms, I invite you to read my new post for Amateur Music Network, “Why We’re Singing Sea Shanties in 2021.” If you have linguistic questions about the trend, rather than musical ones, stick around and I’ll do my best to answer them here.
To get in the mood, please enjoy the TikTok that started the trend in late December, “Soon May the Wellerman Come,” sung by Nathan Evans, a Scottish postman. Or check out one of the many Wellerman remixes. Or listen to something different: “Rollin’ Down to Old Maui,” sung by Matt Young on #shantytok.
Sea Songs and Shanties (Glasgow, 1974). Via AbeBooks
Music historians will tell you that sea shanties (or chanteys; I’ll get to the spelling in a bit) are a type of work song invented by sailors during long sea voyages in the 18th and 19th centuries. The insistent rhythm and call-and-response structure helped to coordinate shipboard labor and relieve the tedium. Not all sea songs are shanties; “Wellerman” is, strictly speaking, a whaling ballad. A prescient 2008 post on the Art of Manliness blog explained the distinctions:
Shanties were divided into several categories, named after the work they were used for. There were long haul shanties and short haul shanties for long and short rope pulling. There were windlass shanties for pumping out water (all wooden ships leaked to some extent and water would have to be pumped out regularly), and capstan shanties for raising and lowering the anchor.
There was also a fifth kind of sailor song, which wasn’t really considered a true shanty because it was not used for work. Foc’sle, forecastle or forebitters were songs sung after the work was over. They were named after the sailor’s living quarters, where they would gather around to drink and sing wild ballads.
Sailors were admired for their singing ability: In his 1849 novel Redburn, Herman Melville wrote that “Some sea captains, before shipping a man, always ask him whether he can sing out at a rope.”
Melville didn’t call those sailors’ songs “shanties” (or chanteys); it’s possible the word wasn’t yet in circulation. The OED’s oldest citation for “shanty” is from 1869, in the Edinburgh-based Chambers Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art. There’s a slightly older citation for the alternate spelling “chanty,” though, and it’s from an American source: Seven Years of a Sailor’s Life, published in Boston in 1867.
And thus we arrive at the Great Shanty/Chantey divide.
At least until the current TikTok phenomenon, North Americans [UPDATE: Maybe just USians? See comment on this post] tended to spell the word chantey*. Since 1981, San Francisco’s Maritime National Historical Park has hosted monthly public chantey sings on Hyde Street Pier; the events have been virtual since the coronavirus shutdowns. In its January 16, 2021, article about the current musical phenomenon, the New Yorker used the “chantey” spelling. And Merriam-Webster lexicographer Peter Sokolowski pointed me to his dictionary’s entry, which gives “chantey” as the primary spelling (and asserts that it’s “a modification of the French chanter”).
Meanwhile, people in the British Isles call the same songs shanties.** The OED prefers the shanty spelling, and is not so sure about its origins, claiming only that it’s “said to be” from French chantez, the imperative form of chanter. In a 2001 Mudcats.org thread about “the origin of Sea Chanteys [sic],” which appears to have been started by an American (“Cranky Yankee”), “IanC” asserts that “the spelling Chanty or Chantey is effete, not being historically accurate.” “Micca” chimes in: “Chantey is a Glaswegian slang word for a pisspot or Gezunder (it Gezunder the bed!)in all other places Ive seen it in use in the British Merchant navy in the 60s it was ALWAYS spelt Shanty...” [Punctuation sic.]
The “chamber pot” association may account for the British preference for shanty. But in North American English, shanty has a separate, non-maritime meaning: a rough shack. Merriam-Webster says this shanty probably comes from a French Canadian word, chantier, which originally meant a lumber camp and later a hut; it first appeared around 1820, several decades before the singing shanty. I’ve also seen speculation (see this Wikipedia entry) that shanty = hut comes from an Irish Gaelic word, seanteach, meaning “old house.”
“Shanty Irish” was popularized by Jim Tully in his 1928 memoir of growing up poor in Ohio.
So it’s possible that North Americans preferred the chantey spelling to differentiate the songs from the hovels. Elsewhere in the English-speaking world, however, shanty has predominated. Young American audiences may have been primed for this spelling’s acceptance by the video game “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag,” released in 2013, whose soundtrack included 35 sea shanties [sic].
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (Sea Shanty Edition)
It’s clear from the context which shanty this Australian fish-stick brand is referring to.
For more about the history and culture of shanties/chanteys, see this Twitter thread by Miriam Goldstein, an ocean scientist and climate-policy expert who’s also a shanty fan:
AVAST YE DOOMSCROLLING; it is time for today's shanty thread. It's a tale of the ocean past, present, and future - and how our own future depends on it. Come all you young sailor men listen to me, and I'll tell you a tale of the fish in the sea...https://t.co/sbcDmjIz1q— Miriam Goldstein (@MiriamGoldste) January 15, 2021
* But see this Google Ngram of the relative frequency of shanty, chantey, and chanty in published American English. At some point around 2000, the shanty spelling began overtaking chantey, and it has a distinct lead now.
** The Ngram of the same three terms in British English shows almost no usage of the ch- spellings. And note that “shanty” made almost no impression until the early 20th century.