Bill Casselman

Over the next sailing season, I’m relaxing here on the dock sipping the latest infusion ordered by my doctor, to wit, a mild specific concocted to ameliorate Upper Borneo Jungle Rot. This daily cannikin of amber distillate, which we like to call Mamma Gutbruiser’s Warmed Coconut Palliative Rum Tipple, will sluice my larynx and improve my enunciation so that Tonawanda Wanda, freelance mermaid and nurse, can bring dockside the several medicaments my debile condition requires for recovery. I’m going to examine the origins of small boat words like coracle, punt, gig, umiak, and today shallop.

But first, what is the difference between a boat and a ship? A sailor will generally chastise persons ashore who call large vessels “boats.” What, then, is the difference between a boat and a ship? Who better to ask than the United States Navy? According to the Naval Education and Training Bulletin 14325, page AI-2, a boat is “a small craft capable of being carried aboard a ship.” A few pages later the same bulletin states, “. . . boat refers to a non-commissioned waterborne vessel that is not designated as a service craft.” But even grizzled Navy seadogs seem to agree with the most familiar answer to that question in English: a boat is a vessel that can be hauled aboard a ship and therefore a ship is the larger vessel. A boat fits onto a ship, but a ship cannot fit on a boat. A submarine therefore is a boat.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition is worth quoting, for it is an apt summary of other lexicographical attempts. A boat is “a small open vessel in which to traverse the surface of water, usually propelled by oars, though sometimes by a sail.”

Etymology of Boat
Old English bat is as far back as etymologists can currently sail in search of this root. It appears the Vikings actually borrowed the Old English word as beit. Often with older nautical terms, it is English that filched a sea word or two from Old Norse. Also surprising, the German das Boot was borrowed from English, instead of the other way around. French bateau might be related. Iffiness predominates in this word study and shall continue to do so until an older, likely stem is found floating in the sea of ancient citation.

The sweetly gliding watercraft entered my word mind in public school when I had to memorize Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott.” Once, in earlier English, a shallop was a large heavy boat rigged fore-and-aft. But by Tennyson’s nineteenth-century time of writing it was a fragile, small, open boat.

“By the margin, willow-veil'd
Slide the heavy barges trail'd
By slow horses; and unhail'd
The shallop flitteth silken-sail'd
               Skimming down to Camelot:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
               The Lady of Shalott?”
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
    (from “The Lady of Shalott,” 1842 version of the poem)

In European verbal history there appears to have been an insufficiency of boat words, and therefore European languages shamelessly borrowed their neighbours’ terms for different kinds of boats and shiplets. Chaloupe may look utterly foreign to modern English readers, but it would not have appeared so to literate Victorians who prized Tennyson’s poem "The Lady of Shalott."

Was her breath, I wondered as an inquiring child, redolent of onions? Miss Sniffly, a perfectly embalmed Victorian spinster and one of my worst English teachers, was not amused.

The English form of the word is shallop. In English this obsolescent term referred to a little boat for shallow water used with oars or sail. La chaloupe was a French rowboat. In France it might also be canot à rames ‘boatlet with oars.’ Or, if a small boat were a complete ruin, a Parisian would perhaps use the word barque.

“The shallop flitteth silken-sailed.” What a melodious technician Tennyson was! And Thought, ignoble and brutish intruder, never darkened his brow nor poisoned one line of his verse. But think of poor, dear Mrs. Tennyson, bereft, alone, and lustily eyeing a spindle, as poetic Al sat out on a moist rock weeping through years and years of sorrow for his defunct "close" friend, Arthur Hallam.

But enough skitterings from the path of  rectitude. The English shallop appears to be a doublet ultimately from the Dutch boat word sloep, thus sloep would give two English boat words, sloop and shallop. There may have been borrowing from English into French to obtain the French form chaloupe. In any case, all the major European languages borrowed the word : Spanish has chalupa; Italian has scialuppa and German Schaluppe.

Tennyson perhaps picked up use of the word as a poetic boat term from Edmund Spenser who used it in 1590 in The Faerie Queen “Into the same she leapt, and with the ore / Did thrust the shallop from the floting strand.” After Tennyson, all manner of toodling Victorian pseudopoets and pseudopod-people took up the word shallop. It was so very au fait with all that was verbally chic. The nadir of its overuse is by Peter H. Emerson, the etiolated Norfolk naturalist who warbles in his wispy English Idyls (1889) “Fain would I have slumbered in my frail shallop.” Asleep at the oar again, eh, Peterkins? You naughty, naughty lad.

Bill Casselman.

May 19, 2016

To send me suggestions or emails, return to the home page and fill out the contact form.


Sample My Brand-New Book! Just Published!
If you like these word essays, my new book "At the Wording Desk" contains 94 new essays never-before published.
400 pages, paperback under $18.00 USD

Check it out at Trafford Publishing.
Just click

Go to the bookstore and type in the title of my book in the upper right-hand search box: "At the Wording Desk."

Sample 4 chapters free at  
does NOT offer any free chapters to read.

At Amazon, type the title of my book into the search box at the top of the page, that is "At the Wording Desk."

Shallop: Victorian Boat Word

Increase your Nautical Vocabulary with Nifty Boat Words

"The Lady of Shalott," John William Waterhouse, 1888, English Pre-Raphaelite painter, Tate Britain, London

At the Wording Desk