J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

British Soldiers Weren't Called Lobsterbacks

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?”
[Additionally, I found “lobster backed” used as an insult for a British officer in Benjamin Waterhouse’s A Journal, of a Young Man of Massachusetts, Late a Surgeon on Board an American Privateer (Boston: Rowe and Hooper, 1816), which is said to have been a “best-selling account of a ship’s surgeon in the War of 1812.” Popular literature like that could have spread the term throughout the U.S. of A.

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?


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately I don't have a source, but I've heard of another reason why they are called lobsterbacks.

After they were whipped in public their backs would be red with blood, therefore the term lobsterback is derived from the whipping (red on back - lobsterback). A second note to that, the drummer would be the one doing the whipping sometimes as they had the best wrists for inflicting pain. (Drumming all day, build up muscle, see where I'm going...)

Maybe that can help you in your research, looking for lobsterback in the form of being punished.

J. L. Bell said...

It’s true that etymology is out there, but it first shows up in regard to British sailors rather than soldiers. The corporal discipline in the Royal Navy was even worse than in the army.

Gaspare Armato said...

I like your history blog.
I'd like write more things, but my english is very poor, sorry.

Rino, from Toscany, Italy.

Anonymous said...

Newton Prince a Negro a Member of South Church:...Some of the people said let's attack the Main guard, or the Centinel who is gone to King street. Some said for Gods sake don't lets touch the main guard. I went down. Saw the Soldiers planted by the Custom house two deep. The people were calling them Lobsters, dating 'em to fire, saying damn you why don't you fire.
--From Wroth and Zobel, eds. Legal Papers of John Adams, the Rex v. Preston case.
Not lobsterbacks, but lobsters.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, plenty of lobsters, but no “lobsterbacks.”

Don’t miss the Boston 1775 articles on Newton Prince.

John R. Grodzinski said...

The term was used during the English Civil War, but for cavalry and not infantry. Perhaps the most famous example is of Arthur Haselrigge's regiment, nicknamed by the appearance of their protective army. There may be further information on the subsequent use of this term in the Journal for the Society for Army Historical Research.

"Sir William Waller having received from London [in June 1643] a fresh regiment of five hundred horse, under the command of sir Arthur Haslerigge, which were so prodigiously armed that they were called by the other side the regiment of lobsters, because of their bright iron shells with which they were covered, being perfect curasseers." [Clarendon, "History of the Rebellion," 1647]


J. L. Bell said...

Yes, Chris Lenney mentioned the seventeenth-century use of “lobster” in his essay. It’s curious how the same slang appeared in the eighteenth century, but for other soldiers and for another reason. Still, no “lobsterbacks” until the 1800s.

John R. Grodzinski said...

The "Dictionary of the Vulgar" lists "Lobster" as a slang term for soldier, but I have rarely seen "lobsterback" used. More often than not "bloodyback" is the term used, while "lobster" is seen most often in Napoleonic era literature, such as the Hornblower and other series. This may be as you say a popular derivation. John.

Peter Wells said...

Peter here, a Kiwi (New Zealander)

In the novels I have read of the period the term "lobsterback" is used for British Marines (ie shipborn soldiers) rather than regular British Army. As "lobsterbacks" were considered to be Royal Navy there was on-going anomosity between them and regular army "redcoats".

My six-penny worth.

MaryJeanAdams said...

Awesome. I had just used the term "lobster" in my latest manuscript and was wondering whether I should change it to "lobsterback" for authenticity. Since it's set in Wilmington DE in 1774, I'm going to take this as a "no."

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, there's lots of documentation for the pejorative "lobster," but we're still lacking a solid source that early for "lobsterback."

Anonymous said...

This is a very helpful article. Thank you.