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All hands to/on the pump

Posted by Lewis on February 03, 2003

In Reply to: All hands to/on the pump posted by R. Berg on January 31, 2003

: : Does anyone know the origins of the above? I can't find it in the archives. I think it refers to hand-pumped fire tenders, but would like confirmation. Or am I just making it up?

: Eric Partridge discusses a related cluster of phrases in "A Dictionary of Catch Phrases American and British" (2nd ed.,1985):

: 'MAN THE PUMPS!' 'Bear a hand!' or 'Help! Help!': rather more general in the US than in the British Commonwealth: C20. Clearly from the literal nautical sense. (Prof. John W. Clark, 1968.) Prof. Anthony Brown, 1979, adds, 'I've often heard this preceded by "all hands on deck and . . ." , or varied as "all hands on deck and batten down the hatches". Both meaning "Let's get to work!"' 'Man the pumps!' became more pertinent and pointed and catch-phrasal in [Clark's] later comment, 1977: 'Perhaps most commonly by a man of weeping women'.

It may be a naval phrase - as wooden ships let in some water no matter how good the caulking is - they have bilge-pumps to pump excess water out of the hold. So when a ship was letting in water and in danger of sinking, instead of just a couple of men pumping it would be "all hands to the pumps" - hands being deck-hands - which presumably left the helmsman etc still free to steer.