son of a gun

Despite a persistent myth of a nautical origin, son of a gun is simply a rhyming euphemism for a more offensive insult. The gun has no significance other than it rhymes with son. The phrase first appears in the newspaper The British Apollo in 1708 in a distinctly non-nautical context:

You’r a Son of a Gun.

Sometimes a false legend of a word’s origins have been around for years and writings and citations can be found, some quite old, that seem to bear out the legendary origin. Such is the case with the myth of a nautical origin of the phrase son of a gun.

The nautical explanation is that in the age of sail, women, wives, mistresses, and prostitutes, were frequently on board ship when in port or sailing in home waters and occasionally children would be born aboard ship. Common sailors slept on the gun deck and when on board, their wives and mistresses would sleep there too. If a child were born on board, it would likely be born on the gun deck. If male, such a child was referred to as a son of a gun. This legend dates back to the mid-19th century. Admiral William Henry Smyth wrote in his 1867 book, the Sailor’s Word-book, that is one of the primary sources for data on 19th century nautical lingo:

Son of a gun, an epithet conveying contempt in a slight degree, and originally applied to boys born afloat, when women were permitted to accompany their husbands to sea; one admiral declared he literally was thus cradled, under the breast of a gun-carriage.

So the idea that the phrase has a nautical origin is quite old. The phrase however, is considerably older than Smyth’s origin story.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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