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A Ship By Any Other Name

May 2024
1min read

On the cover of the October, 1966, AMERICAN HERITAGE , there was a detail from a painting; bv William Rimmer showing Mrs. Leopold Bamberger about to be rescued at sea. The whole painting was reproduced on page 54 of that issue, with a caption describing the rescue vessel as a “schooner.”

Well, we haven’t received so many indignant letters since we ran an article saying that George Washington never took communion. The seagoing fraternity were thoroughly aroused, and a good many wrote in to say that that was no schooner, it was a ship . Indeed, some of them were much more precise than that, for example: “I have no means of knowing whether the real Shanunga was a schooner, catamaran, or dhow, but this I do know, that the vessel so beautifully depicted is a full-rigged ship, hove to under topsails, topgallant sails, spanker and fore-topmast staysail, with courses clewed up and royals furled. … I suggest that your nautical editor, if you have one, be hanged at the yardarm.”

Upon checking, we find that our nautical editor was on vacation the week that caption was written, sailing a Sunfish on Long Island Sound; so he has been granted a reprieve. The rest of us around here hardly know a barque from a bight, and we should have been more careful. In penance, we reproduce herewith a couple of nineteenth-century engravings that show the difference between a schooner (left, fore-and-aft rigged) and a ship (above, square-rigged).

We take a possibly perverse satisfaction in noting that there was something else askew about the offending picture caption—and only two of our correspondents, so far, have caught it. The caption calls the rescue ship the Shanunga , on the basis of information supplied by the Florence Lewison Gallery, where the painting hangs; but if you look closely at her (ahem) starboard trail board, you can see that the artist spelled the name Chenanga .

Let us offer the following etymological information to those interested. In the i84o’s there was a highly unsuccessful branch of the Erie Canal known as the Chenango, running through about a hundred miles of south-central New York. From that, according to the lexicographers, came a rare Americanism, shenango , meaning a roustabout, or casual dock worker; possibly it may also be the source of shenanigan , which contrary to earlier opinion is now thought to be of American rather than Irish origin. Can it be that Mrs. Bamberger’s rescue ship is tied in with all this in some way? Let us know if you find out.

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