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Kiss the gunner’s daughter

Q From Ken Davy: I came across a phrase in a novel that went something like kissing the gunner’s daughter. Apparently it was some sort of punishment meted out to sailors long ago. Do you know anything about it and what it entailed?

A You’re certainly in the right area here. It was a naval term from the latter part of the eighteenth century (it’s recorded first in A Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose in 1785, but is probably a good deal older).

There were several forms of the saying, of which yours was one; others were marry the gunner’s daughter and hug the gunner’s daughter. A sailor about to receive punishment (usually flogging) was lashed face-down on a cannon (the gunner’s daughter of the phrase). The sexual associations were clear enough, with marry being an obvious euphemism.

Here’s a typical example of its use, from Billy Budd by Herman Melville:

“And is that all you did about it, Foretopman?” gruffly demanded another, an irascible old fellow of brick-colored visage and hair, and who was known to his associate forecastlemen as Red Pepper; “Such sneaks I should like to marry to the gunner’s daughter!” by that expression meaning that he would like to subject them to disciplinary castigation over a gun.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 20 Apr. 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 20 April 2002.