Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Blackball

 Well now, here's one I thought I knew: blackball. Per Online Etymology Dictionary

"to exclude from a club by adverse votes," 1770, from black (adj.) + ball (n.1). The image is of the black balls of wood or ivory that were dropped into an urn as adverse votes during secret ballots.  

Ah, but there is also a nautical twist...

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...and it has to do with the "Black Ball Line" shipping company of old.

The Black Ball Line Packet Ship 'New York' off Ailsa Craig by William Clark (1836)
https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/asset-viewer/1QGRQs0DDURfww

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I bumped into this entry in the 1889 Americanisms, Old and New by John Stephen Farmer:

Blackballing.—Stealing or pilfering. A sailor's word. it originated amongst the employees of the old Black Ball line of steamers between New York and Liverpool. The cruelty and scandalous conduct of officers to men—and sailors to each other—became so proverbial, that the line of vessels in question became known all over the world for the cruelty of its officers, and the thieving propensities of its sailors.

I read this, and thought, "Really, now! Time to dig a little deeper."

In a long discussion of the origin of the word blackball on Wordwizard, one of the posters mentioned this tie to the Black Ball Line, referencing Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson. (Hmmm. That's a book I should add to my shelves...) I couldn't find much more about this slangish use of the word, but did find this little history of the Black Ball Line that mentions the viciousness of its officers on Contemplator.com in the notes for the sea shanty "The Black Ball Line":

...The Black Ball Line was founded by a group of Quakers in 1818. It was the first line to take passengers on a regular basis, sailing from New York, Boston and Philadelphia on the first and sixteenth of each month. The Blackball flag was a crimson swallow-tail flag with a black ball. The ships were famous for their fast passage and excellent seamanship. However, they were also famed for their fighting mates and the brutal treatment of seamen.

The Contemplator.com page even has a musical file and lyrics, so you can play this sea shanty and sing along! (Note that the lyrics offer a more upbeat picture of the Black Ball Line, in which the "good and gallant crew" bests a pirate ship.) Or, if you prefer, you can play the YouTube rendition below. 


4 comments:

Liz V. said...

It appears that, for a time, there were two Black Ball Lines. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Baines_%26_Co. Wonder whether New York line was the one noted for mistreatment.

Ann Parker said...

Hi Liz! From what I've read, it sounds like the NY line was the one under discussion...

Liz V. said...

Hi Ann.

Didn't phrase my comment well. Meant to question whether the poor conditions have been attributed incorrectly to the New York line.

Ann Parker said...

Ah! got it, Liz.
Hmmm. I shall have to delve into that a bit.