Kipling and the Language of the Sea

by Commander Alastair Wilson R.N.

"The Bonds of Discipline" | "Their Lawful Occasions"
"Judson and the Empire"

Kipling's first major piece of writing about the sea was, I believe, McAndrew's Hymn, which is dated 1893. Later on, after his encounters with the Channel Fleet (1898) and with the Royal Navy in Simon's Town at the Cape, he wrote a number of short stories which featured Petty Officer Pyecroft.

Pyecroft is generally thought of as an inferior Mulvaney, but in putting words into Pyecroft's mouth, Kipling showed his mastery of seaman's language - more specifically the language of the Royal Navy's lower deck. It may be that many readers of Kipling, particularly those of the younger generation, are not familiar with that language, and may even have been put off from reading the stories.

To my mind, having been brought up on the works of authors like 'Bartimaeus' (an Edwardian author and ex-naval officer who had lost his sight) who wrote short stories of this period, and Major W.P. Drury, Royal Marines, Kipling got the atmosphere and the language just right.

The stories are also chock-full of references which may be unrecognizable today. Having read Michael Smith's splendid dictionary of Indian words in Kipling, I though I'd try to do something similar for the sea, and have started with the first of the Pyecroft stories, 'The Bonds of Discipline', followed by 'Their Lawful Occasions', and 'Judson and the Empire'.