And finally, OED

Posted by Keith Rennie on December 12, 2004

In Reply to: Skipper's daughters --restricted regional use?? getting closer posted by Keith Rennie on December 12, 2004

: : : : : : "Skipper's daughters"

: : : : : : Today for the first time I came on this beautiful phrase "skipper's daughters", in Robert Louis Stevenson, ("The education of an engineer", Scribners 4 Nov 1888) later reproduced in Across the Plains, 1892.

: : : : : : On Scotland's north coast, at Wick: "It was a gray, harsh, easterly weather, the swell was pretty high, and out in the open there were "skipper's daughters," when I found myself at last on the diver's platform, twenty pounds of lead upon each foot . . ."

: : : : : : A few years later the CAnadian poet Bliss Carman used ~ evocatively in Ballads of Lost Haven: A Book of the Sea (Lines 55, 63, 111).

: : : : : : - Why the phrase? It clearly means something like whitecaps or white horses, but what's the connection? What does it signify? Is it because ~ portend a
: : : : : : storm, and like the ~ they spell danger, stay well away from them, sailor (cf. don't mess with the boss's daughter, don't dip your pen in company ink etc.)? Other interpretations?

: : : : : : - Where can I find the phrase identified or explained? (not in Brewer, 1898)

: : : : : : - Are there other notable examples of its use (esp. pre 1888)? Is it well known and I just missed it?

: : : : : : Thanks for your suggestions or contributions

: : : : : : - Keith

: : : : : Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English defines "skipper's daughter" as "a crested wave." He says the expression appeared in c. 1888, leading me to suspect that Stevenson was Partridge's source too. Colloquial at first; became standard English c. 1910.

: : : : I looked in several references including two nautical phrase books and couldn't find it.

: : : Hmm. Thanks indeed for trying. Curiouser and curiouser. Primarily British or even Scottish coastal fishery term? R L Stevenson's father was a lighthouse inspector on the east coast of Scotland, and Stevenson learned his sea lore from there. But how did Bliss Carman get hold of it? From Stevenson's writings? and what's the evidence for the statement that it became "standard English" ca 1910? I'm fascinated, now. I have emailed my father, now 90, whose family is from Aberdeenshire.
: : : - Keith

: : In addition to the nautical books, I've looked in "Dictionary of American Regional English," Volume IV by Joan Houston Hall (2002, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., and London, England) and Facts on File Dictionary of American Regionalisms: Local Expressions from Coast to Coast by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 2000).

: : No luck.

: To ESC - Negative evidence is evidence too. We are getting warmer now. I discovered that William Bliss Carman (1861-1929) studied, among other places at Edinburgh university and was an admirer of Robert Louis Stevenson, publishing at the age of 18 A Seamark: A Threnody for Robert Louis Stevenson. Boston: Copeland And Day, 1875. It really looks as though we must go to the Scottish coastal fishers for this term. Two famous authors using the term "skipper's daughter" in three well circulated pubications appearing between 1888 and 1897 and often reprinted, would have been quite enough to give internaitonal currency to a regional fisherman's phrase.

: If a "skipper's daughter" is a crested wave in open water, it is indeed extremely hazardous. Such a wave risks swamping a fishing vessel in an instant and drowning its occupants.

OED defines "skipper's daughter" more precisely as a high, white-crested wave, citing the same date and passage from Stevenson that was cited in the first posting. This seems odd, since Stevenson takes the phrase for granted and does not explain its meaning. But it is probably Scots seafaring, since OED indicates that skipper in this sense is primarily a Scots usage, from Dutch, and current from 14th century. Why/how the phrase got this meaning is still an open question.