A while back, Christopher Lenney, the researcher who alerted me to the possibility of a “Mount Whoredom” in London to match the one in Boston, sent me a note that said:
I may be crazy but I can find no authentic 18th C. use of the term “lobsterback” or “lobster-back” for British soldier. Can you?So I searched for words containing the ingredient “lobster” in the primary sources on my computer. You can see the results in yesterday’s posting. Lots of mentions of “lobsters,” but not one use of “lobsterback.” Or “lobster-back,” or “lobster back.”
So Chris, author of Sightseeking: Clues to the Landscape History of New England, is today’s guest blogger. (My interruptions in italics.)
“Lobsterback” has been repeated so often by historians that the term has taken on a life of its own. I learned it in school, and if you Google it you’ll find it still is a standard Revolutionary War vocabulary word. But is it really a Revolutionary-era taunt?
If you go to the standard references, such as the Oxford English Dictionary, you find that “lobster” has been used since 1643 as a slang term for English soldiers, originally said of Roundhead cuirassiers on account of their armor, not the color of their uniforms. Later it was transferred to other British soldiers with red uniforms.
“Lobsterback” is not in the OED, Webster’s Second, The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, The Dictionary of American English, or The Dictionary of Americanisms. It is in Webster’s Third (1961).
Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English lists the first example of “lobster-back” in 1822, and says it is a variant on “lobster (soldier).” The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang lists the first example as “lobster-backed” in 1809 in a non-North American source, and gives the first American usage as Crockett’s Almanac in 1840. (But see below.)
In America’s Historical Newspapers online, the first documented uses of “lobsterback” that I can find are in 1812-13 in The Tickler of Philadelphia:
- 8 Sept 1812: a satirical poem refers to “General Lobsterback.”
- 22 Sept 1812: “If the democrats would fight as hard as chatter and drink grog, there would not be a lobsterback in all Quebec, in less than forty-five days.” And about a man going privateering, “Perhaps he may in that station, scald the lobster-back rascals.”
- 26 Jan 1813: a letter quoted the city’s mayor saying, “Who cares for a parcel of d——d lobster back rascals and tories?”
Over in Britain, Google Books finds the term in witness testimony in The Trial of Robert Surrage..., printed in Edinburgh in 1820, and in the novel The Irish Necromancer; or, Deer Park, written by Thomas Henry Marshal and published in London in 1821—all from the same general period.]
After the War of 1812, the term starts to appear in American fiction about the Revolutionary War. A short story by J. N. Barker called “The Green Mountain Boy: A Tale of Ticonderoga” in The Atlantic Souvenir: A Christmas and New Year’s Offering (Philadelphia, 1827) has Ethan Allen use this phrase as he challenges the British in the fort:
“...come out lobster back, from your shell…”[Barker’s story was reprinted in this 1832 anthology for folks who want to read it.]
Fishing in Google, I found this passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Whole History of Grandfather’s Chair from 1840. The section of chapter five headed “The Boston Massacre” appears to rephrase for young ears the taunts that had been published in newspapers in 1770.
“Turn out, you lobsterbacks!” one would say. “Crowd them off the sidewalks!” another would cry. “A redcoat has no right in Boston streets!”
“O, you rebel rascals!” perhaps the soldiers would reply, glaring fiercely at the young men. “Some day or other we’ll make our way through Boston streets at the point of the bayonet!”
Thanks, Chris! It looks like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s use of “lobster-back” might have put it into the American literary canon. The next generation of New England writers adopted it. Edward Everett Hale used it in 1896 and 1899. Julian Hawthorne used it in a textbook in 1898, and soon it appeared in other textbooks, such as this from 1905.
Around that turn of the century, the term surfaced in several American novels, particularly historical novels for young readers: Chauncey Crafts Hotchkiss’s In Defiance of the King (NY: 1895), Robert W. Chambers’s Cardigan (NY: 1901) and The Reckoning (NY: 1907), and James Otis’s The Minute Boys of Boston (Boston: 1910). And details we learn as children have a way of sticking.
Can anyone point to eighteenth-century sources using the term “lobsterback” for a British soldier? Or should we revise our understanding of Revolutionary vocabulary? Would any late reminiscence of those times that uses “lobsterback” probably have been written long after the fact?