Q From Tom Goldsmith, Denver, USA: After spending a half an hour, I have been unable to locate the term loblolly boy, and would therefore appreciate your explaining its meaning, if you can. It is a term often used in Patrick O’Brian’s marvellous Master and Commander.
A Let’s start with loblolly itself. This was a medicinal food, a thick oatmeal gruel or porridge, perhaps with a bit of meat or some vegetables in it; other names for it were burgoo or spoon-meat. It was given to seamen recovering from sickness or injury, and so it belonged in the same category as that other supposedly restorative foodstuff, portable soup, which Patrick O’Brian frequently has Dr Maturin mention; this was soup that had been concentrated into a solid form to preserve it and make it easy to carry about.
The loblolly boy was an assistant to the ship’s surgeon; one of his jobs was to feed the patients, hence his name. But loblolly had another sense, a figurative one of a rustic bumpkin, which reveals the loblolly boy’s position in the hierarchy of the ship — somewhere between the cabin boy and a ship’s rat.
The word may come from the dialectal lob, to bubble while boiling, and lolly, for broth, soup, or other food boiled in a pot, both recorded in the English Dialect Dictionary. It’s almost certainly connected to lobscouse, originally a sailor’s dish of meat stewed with vegetables and ship’s biscuit. Abbreviated to scouse it has become attached to the English port city of Liverpool and to its dialect and inhabitants.
The loblolly pine — and other trees and shrubs whose name includes the words — is found in swampy areas in places like Florida. The word loblolly was also used for any material of a gloppy constituency, such as mud (in parts of the southern US, it was the name for a mudhole). The plant names come from that link.