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Keep your elbows off of the table

Posted by Victoria S Dennis on March 28, 2009 at 07:40

In Reply to: Keep your elbows off of the table posted by Smokey Stover on March 28, 2009 at 01:24:

: : : : : The origin of the saying,"Keep your elbows off of the table". Originally, I just thought this was proper etiquette. Actually, I found out by my father (a history genius), this actually derived from the colonies during the 17th and 18th century. A group of British sailors called "Impressment gangs" would come into taverns, etc. looking for men who had their elbows on the table either eating or drinking. Having one's elbows on the table would mean they were in previous service as a sailor or merchant marine. (Having ones elbows on the table whilst holding a cup or plate, would prevent it from spilling). These "Impressment Gangs" were impressed by the way these men would be eating, and abduct them to serve on British ships. This was completely legal at the time, and this practice occurred in the colonies, Canada, and even Britain.

: : : : I'm afraid your father is no history genius: keeping elbows off tables is indeed just a matter of etiquette, and his tale is pure invention.
: : : : 1. The Royal Navy had "press gangs", organised by the Impress (not "Impressment") Service, authorised to seek out seamen and compel them to serve in the Navy. (This was a rough-and-ready form of conscription; all sailors who were subjects of the British Crown were in theory liable to serve in the Navy when wanted, and as true-born Britons felt it would be despotic and tyrannical to keep a register of seamen so that they could be called up in an orderly way, there was no alternative to simply grabbing them off thew street or from the tavern. Records of the Impress service mention a number of ways in which sailors could be identified: their clothes and hairstyles (sailors' trousers and pigtails were distinctive), tattoos (a purely maritime custom) and language (the jargon of the sea). No recorded case nor any memoirist of the time mentions anything about elbows on tables. This is a fantasy. (VSD)

: : : The press gangs did not confine their attention to subjects of the Crown. American seamen were NOT subjects of the Crown. However, their "impressment" by British gangs has always been listed as one of the grievances that dragged the U.S. into the War of 1812.

: : : Let's not forget the burning of Washington, including the White House, in August of 1814. I can forgive the fire, but it led to something less forgivable, our national anthem, surely the worst piece of public music ever perpetrated, except possibly "Hail to the Chief." (Actually, I'm not crazy about "God Save the King," either, no matter what words are set to it.)
: : : SS

: : The trouble was that it was very hard to tell who was a subject of the Crown and who wasn't, in an era before passports and ID papers. Many 24-carat British seamen (including deserters from the Royal Navy) were serving in American vessels - and when questioned by Navy officers would naturally claim to be Americans. And many genuine American seamen would have been born subjects of the British Crown. (VSD)

: Yeah, those were the excuses the British made at the time. Truth is, the goon squads (press gangs) grabbed any sailor drunk enough to be easily subdued, or just plain drunk enough, and when he woke up he was on a British ship. Like other recruiting officers these guys had quotas to make. So if they had to shanghai a bunch of Americans, that's what they did. (Don't ask me for documentation, I'm just an American jingoist.)
: SS

It was relatively rare for American seamen to be pressed on land; it was more often a case of them being pressed off vessels acccosted on the high seas. And the trouble was mainly caused by two serious differences of legal opinion between the two governments, viz:
- Britain held that a merchant ship was not part of a nation's sovereign territory, and therefore that it was not a violation of another nation's sovereignty to board its merchant ships, examine them and, if British seamen were found thereon, to remove them. Conversely, the Americans h eld that it was; thus the mere stopping of those vessels was an offence to the American government, whether any impressment took place or not.
- Great Britain held the doctrine of "Indelible Allegiance", whereby the native-born subject of a state cannot, without consent of that state, relinquish his allegiance and obligations to that state and adopt another nationality. The USA, however, held the doctrine of "Voluntary Expatriation", whereby a person could change his nationality entirely and permanently, relinquishing all obligation to his previous country. (From 1802 the qualifying period of residence in the USA was laid down as 5 years.) Thus, there were a great many seamen in American ships on whose nationality the two governments were never going to agree.
- There were a very large number of genuine British seamen serving quite legally
on American ships. (The Admiralty, in an estimate made 57 years later, long after the acrimony had died down, reckoned as many as 20,000.) This was partly because wages in the American merchant service were anything up to twice as high as on British merchant ships; partly because many British seamen wanted to avoid being pressed into the Royal Navy, which on British merchant ships they were much more likely to be; and partly because it was the obvious place for Royal Navy deserters to go.
- Matters were complicated by the USA's refusal to issue official certificates of nationality to naturalised persons (then again, if they had, every American over 30 years old in 1812 would have needed one!). Thus, American-born sailors, or genuinely naturalised British-born ones, could not produce evidence of their status. Some carried sworn affidavits or certificates issued by American consuls, but these had no legal status and easily could be (and often were) forged, so British captains were apt to ignore them.
- I don't deny for a moment that when the need for men was pressing Royal Navy captains and press gangs often took men they shouldn't have. But the different legal attitudes between the two governments were so great that there was always going to be a dispute even if every single British captain had been scrupulously correct. (VSD)