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swinging in the hammock

Summer is almost here in the northern hemisphere, heralding lazy afternoons in the back yard hammock.  Where did the word hammock come from?  The English language borrowed it from the Carib word hamaca.  The Caribs were the indigenous people of the Caribbean islands who, in addition to hammock, gave us the word for their sea (Caribbean) as well as the word cannibal, though it is extremely doubtful that they actually ate their fellow humans.

Needless to say, neither the word nor hammocks themselves were known to Europeans until Columbus set foot in the New World, but the English soon learned of these unusual beds:

 Theyr hangynge beddes whiche they caule Hamacas. (1555)

One early report gets a couple of points wrong:

 They lay each of them in a cotten Hamaca, which we call brasill beds. (1596)

 Good quality modern hammocks may be made of cotton but the cotton plant was unknown in the Americas until it was introduced from Asia.  Also, we see by the term brasill beds that the Elizabethans were rather vague about the geography of all those new lands across the ocean.

 The original spelling, and variants of it, persisted for a few centuries…

 Hamaccas, which are Indian beds, most necessary in those parts. (1613)

Saylers, who..get forthwith into their beds (or hamackoes). (1638)

 but by 1657 it had begun to be pronounced as it is today:

 Lye down and rest them in their Hamocks.

 The spelling could still be quite creative, though:

 It cannot be so convenient as a Hammaque. (1675)

 By the 17th century, hammocks had become a standard feature of life on board the ships of the Royal Navy.  So much so, in fact, that on occasion they were even used as shrouds:

 Orders were..given for sewing him up in a hamacoe, in order to bury him. (1761)

 A sailor’s life was incredibly hard in those days but, even so, they were not denied the solace of the fairer sex.  Surprising as it may seem to us today, women were allowed allowed on board and could share a hammock with a sailor.  This gave rise to the expression show a leg,  Now used figuratively to mean “get out of bed”, this phrase used to be taken literally.  The boatswain would bellow this command and if a shapely female limb appeared its owner was allowed to stay abed.  One shudders to think what awful fate befell a common mariner who dared show his hairy gam.

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Last Updated 06/17/02 01:13 PM