Playing with Words

The editors of early nineteenth century newspapers worked with words for their living, and were not prevented by the serious news of the war from playing with them. Puns were not frequent, but whenever they saw an opportunity for a word play they gleefully seized it.  In the spring of 1813, the British fleet was not only blockading the eastern coast of the United States, but alleviating their boredom by taking to the barges and landing at isolated locations to get fresh water, or fresh beef, or fresh feather-beds.

Occasionally the news would arrive that a small town in Virginia, named Smithfield, was threatened.  In 1813, as well as today, Smithfield was especially famous for its Virginia hams.  The Raleigh Register reprinted this item from the Richmond Enquirer on April 23, 1813:  “The statement made in the Northern prints, that the British have landed at Smithfield, and carried off 100,000 wt. of bacon is not true.–They have not attempted a landing, and by this cautious conduct saved their own bacon.”  A variant of this appeared in the National Intelligencer on April 15:  “The British lately landed at Smithfield, in Virginia, and carried off upwards of 100,000 weight of Bacon!–Unless they are very careful, they will find enough to do to save their own bacon in some of their marauding incursions!”  In the same issue, the Intelligencer reported:   “A Philadelphia paper says if the British squadron will come up there, though they may not get a supply of beef, they shall have a belly-full of something!”   On July 7, 1813, the Democratic Pressreprinted this account from the Richmond Compiler:  “A gentleman arrived yesterday morning from Norfolk, who crossed the river at Sandy Point at 9 on Wednesday morning.  He states that the inhabitants of Smithfield were preparing for the reception of the enemy–they were saving their bacon–not a cart or waggon but what was in requisition; 500 militia with some field pieces were preparing to give them a warm reception.”

Washington Irving, in his 1809 Knickerbocker’s History of New York, celebrated the Dutch Admiral Van Tromp, who, with a broom nailed to his masthead, swept the English Channel.  In commenting on a report from Sackett’s Harbor that Commodore Chauncey had been chasing the fleet of Sir James Yeo, but that “Sir James studiously avoided a decisive battle, his object is obviously to fritter away time,” the editor of the Democratic Press, John Binns, wrote, on September 21, 1813,  “When the superior Sir James Yeo last swept lake Ontario, he did his business in so slovenly a manner that Com. Chauncey had to go all over it after him.”  Having gotten off this play, the next day, Binns got off another series of metaphors, on the same subject:  “It was to have been hoped that that formidable British battering ram, Sir James Yeo, would not have declined a contest with Com. Chauncey, in which case he would have been fleeced at least, if not completely lamb-basted.  But as it appears he relies altogether on the wether gage, and is addicted to constantly shearing off, it is matter of some satisfaction that the gallant commodore has penned him in a corner of the lake, where his offensive operations will be confined to bleating.”  On October 1, Binns returns to the broom metaphor:  “Henson says, that Sir James has been sweeping the lake; but it is well known, that he is afraid of a dust, and has avoided more than once a brush with our gallant commodore.”  By October 20, we are certain that Binns thought Yeo was pronounced “ewe”:  “Chauncey has driven Yeo to his proper station, he was obliged to take refuge under the ram parts–of Burlington.”  The Maryland Gazette also held to this pronunciation of “Yeo,” in an otherwise serious article from Albany, which it published February 3, 1814:  “500 men will move from Greenbush, in sleighs, to-morrow, or next day, which will increase our force at the Harbor to 3000, and place our squadron in safety against all the Yeos and Rams in Upper Canada.”

Another British Commodore, Sir Thomas Hardy, gave the editors of the New York Columbian their fun in this article:  “Commodore Hardy says he will have the American frigates [at New London] in a fortnight, or forfeit his head.  The gallant veteran’s bravery and hardihood cannot be doubted.  But if he ventures to attack the squadron in New London, with a force of four or five ships only, whether he loses his head, his body, or his ships, in the enterprise, we have very little doubt that he will find himself, once in his live, involved in a fool-hardyundertaking.”(National Intelligencer, June 10, 1813)  The British, in their turn, played with the name of Commodore M’Donough:  “The British call our Naval Commander at Plattsburgh Commodore M’ DO-ENOUGH.” (Nashville Clarion, December 5, 1814)

Very occasionally an editor gave in to the punning urge.  This is from the Augusta (Georgia)Herald of April 4, 1816:  “A parishioner inquired of his pastor the meaning of this passage in scripture–‘He was cloathed with curses as with a garment.’  ‘It signifies,’ replied the divine, ‘that the individual had got a habit of swearing.'”

About the Author

Mary Bowden is a researcher working at the Texas Collections Deposit Library at the University of Texas. A little-known but invaluable treasure of U.S. history and the history of American journalism is archived in the collection of bound United States’ Newspapers at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection began more than a century ago and has been stored in recent years in the Texas Collections Deposit Library on the campus of the University of Texas. The sizeable archive is currently in the early stages of being digitized before being moved to a more climate-controlled environment at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus of the University, on the north side of Austin.

Mary Bowden