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The meaning and origin of the expression: Son of a gun

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Son of a gun

Meaning

A rogue or scamp - "you are naughty, you old son of a gun". Also used, although this is uncommon outside the USA, as a euphemism for 'son of a bitch'. Some say that the origin is 'son of a military man'. This explanation is disputed (see below) but, correct or not, the phrase is no longer used to convey that meaning.

Origin

There is dispute amongst etymologists about the origin of this phrase. As always, disputes only occur where there is no definitive evidence so I'll put the sources here and let you decide for yourself. The two points of view are primarily these:

  1. The phrase originated as 'son of a military man' (that is, a gun). The most commonly repeated version in this strand is that the British Navy used to allow women to live on naval ships. Any child born on board who had uncertain paternity would be listed in the ship's log as 'son of a gun'. While it is attestable fact that, although the Royal navy had rules against it, they did turn a blind eye to women (wives or prostitutes) joining sailors on voyages, so this version has plausibility on its side. The sources for this point of view are:

    - The Royal Navy Museum, who confirm that women sometimes travelled on their vessels during the age of sail.

    - The Sailor's Word-Book, William Henry Smyth, 1867. [son of a gun is] "An epithet conveying contempt in a slight degree, and originally applied to boys born afloat, when women were permitted to accompany their husbands at sea; one admiral declared he literally was thus cradled, under the breast of a gun-carriage”.

    - Fighting Words, Christine Ammer, 1999- "A baby conceived during wartime. In World War I the term denoted the illegitimate offspring of servicemen."

    - Jon Bee, A Dictionary of the Turf, 1823, ... means 'a soldier's bastard'.

    The first known printed source is The British Apollo No. 43, 1708 - "You'r a Son of a Gun". That source doesn't mention the military and Smyth's version comes 150 years later, but he was himself a Royal Navy admiral and in a better position than most to know what went on aboard naval ships. Whether or not the military/naval version is the origin it is clear that, in 1823 at least, the term was used with that meaning.

    Counter to that you might think it unusual that military men didn't appear to have daughters, or you may just put that down to the prevailing sexism of the time. There are several phrases including the word son:

    Every mother's son
    Go on my son
    Like father, like son
    My son the doctor
    Number one son
    On me 'ead, son

    whereas it's difficult to think of anything other than 'don't put your daughter on the stage' for daughters.

  2. The term is euphemisitic and derived as a conveniently rhyming alternative to 'son of a bitch/whore'. That term has been part of the language for centuries, certainly long enough for people to some up with a euphemism for it. Shakespeare used something like it in King Lear, 1605 - "One that art nothing but the composition of a Knave, Begger, Coward, Pandar, and the Sonne and Heire of a Mungrill Bitch."

    Also, other sources in print in the 19th century point to the meaning at least of the phrase as indicating contempt:

    Barham's Ingoldsby Legends, 1840, "We heard the rough voice of a son of a gun Of a watchman, ‘One o'clock!’ bawling."

    Thackeray's Pendennis, 1849, "What a happy feller I once thought you, and what a miserable son of a gun you really are!"

    Harper's Magazine October 1883, 759/2 "Thou lubberly, duck-legged son of a gun."

The military version has some circumstantial evidence to support it, the rhyming euphemism origin appears to be no more than conjecture. Case unproven.

See other phrases and sayings from Shakespeare.