Dear Straight Dope:
My fiancé asked me a good question and I just can't seem to find an answer for it. She asked where did the phrase "son of a gun" come from because a gun can't have a son. So I thought I would pass it on to you and see what you could come up with.
Illustration by Slug Signorino
SDStaff Scurvy Dogster replies:
Sure, pass the buck. No problem, Jerry, we’ll keep that almost-marriage cup brimming with love and knowledge. I’ve actually come across two potential origins for the expression. One is fairly interesting and verifiable by a printed source. The other is more interesting but is hearsay. I’ll give ’em both to you, and you can make your own decision.
“Son of a gun” lends itself to many usages, among them surprise, affection, and dislike, to name a few. While the Oxford English Dictionary lists usages of the phrase as far back as 1708, one of the best early examples comes from British admiral William Henry Smyth’s The Sailor’s Work Book, dated 1865. Smyth offers this definition: “An epithet conveying contempt in a slight degree, and originally applied to boys born afloat, when women were permitted to accompany their husbands to sea; one admiral declared he literally was thus cradled, under the breast of a gun carriage.”
Maybe, but it sounds awfully sanitized to me. Sailors of yore were not known for their “slighting epithets of contempt.” Here’s where the unsubstantiated part comes in. I have a friend named Dickie, a fine upstanding fellow, who claims to have seen the origin of “son of a gun” on a TV show — but he can’t remember the name of the show. In this version, the story goes that since many of the crews of sailing vessels of the 18th and 19th centuries were pressed — that is, shanghaied, non-voluntary, etc. — at port they were not permitted to leave the ship. Instead, prostitutes were brought aboard, and coupling often took place between the gun emplacements, as they offered at least a modicum of privacy. Since contraceptives were not readily available, it’s possible many, many children were conceived amidst the weaponry. To take it one step further, pregnancy was no reason for a prostitute to cease earning income, and there were reportedly incidents of working girls giving birth between the guns. But again, I must stress, mine own ears heard this these tidbits second-hand. Draw what conclusions you will.
I’ll just take a leap here and assume that you don’t need help with “son of a bitch.”
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