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Boats, Slow-coaches, Ships and, aye, Liners

Posted by Lewis on May 25, 2006

In Reply to: Re: Slow boat to China posted by James Briggs on May 23, 2006

: : : the finale of "24" was tonight. Jack Bauer is now on "a slow boat to China". unless next season of "24".
: : : I know I have heard of this phrase before..........what's behind it?

: : It was a popular song:

: : I'd like to get you
: : On a slow boat to China,
: : All to myself alone.
: : To get you and keep you in my arms evermore,
: : Leave all your lovers
: : Weeping on the faraway shore.
: : Out on the briny
: : With the moon big and shiny,
: : Melting your heart of stone.
: : Darling, I'd love to get you
: : On a slow boat to China,
: : All to myself alone.

: A great exponent of this song was Jo Stafford. Try to get a hearing

slow boats

we have discussed this phrase before - the 'slow boat' was named in comparison with a faster, usually more expensive, direct passage. same as a slow-train - the stopping service.
the "slow-coach" was the precursor to the "slow-train" - i.e. not the "express" - from the era of horse-drawn land transport, which obviously developed its own sophisticated culture and nomenclature before virtually disappearing in the era of the railway.
whilst in the UK, the stopping train and the express use the same tracks and usually cost the same - there are some premium services that are more expensive.
the same is true of sea travel - ships/boats could be chartered to make a particular journey direct form port to port, but most people went using craft that had an existing itinery - some less wealthy people would go on ships that meant that they were in effect stowage on cargo boats.

the difference between the word 'boat' and 'ship' needs to be mentioned here - the 'slow boat' is not a 'ship' even if to look at, a landlubber like me could not say which was which. nobody mentioned 'fishing ships' years ago - it was always 'fishing boats' [although 'factory ships' do now exist]. the concept is that a craft that mainly travels using rivers and coastal waters is usually called a 'boat', whereas one that is either much bigger or goes from one coast to another can be a 'ship'. 'cruise ships', for example - are large craft usually capable of going beyond coastal waters. the reason for them often being 'cruise liners' instead is that a 'line' is a regular sea route and in the hey-day of water transport, they were operated by companies often named after the Line they worked - so one of their ships was a Liner - it worked the line.

before somebody picks me up on it, 'U-boats' are an exception to the coastal rule, but I would argue that is because of their small crew-size, like 'gun-boats' or 'torpedo-boats' are within the military terminology rather than the usual civilian rules of distinction.

you also had nomenclature based on propulsion - sail, steam, and oil. whilst not as often mentioned as 'steamers', 'oilers' existed and these distinctions usually seem to be most used when there is an overlap of technologies, same as with the hull technology - wood was prevalent for centuries, so when metal started to be used, 'iron-clads' became a descriptive category, but now metal hulls are the most common, that distinction is very rarely mentioned.

were it not for the song, hardly anybody would remember the term 'slow-boat' IMO.

L