Ship-Shape and Bristol Fashion

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Ship-Shape and Bristol Fashion : Phrases


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In May 2005 there was a brief flurry in English newspapers concerning the origin of the term nitty-gritty. A company that had recently presented an 'equality and diversity' course in Bristol had suggested that this term was a reference to an ethnic slur and should no longer be used. Those English journalists with a seek and destroy mission against political correctness rubbed their hands when, much to their satisfaction, it turned out that the claim had no substance.

What wasn't picked up by many at the time was an additional claim that 'ship-shape and Bristol fashion' was also a derogatory description of black people who were ready for sale as slaves. This is also unsupported by any evidence. The phrase has a perfectly sound derivation which is nothing to do with race.

'Ship-shape and Bristol fashion' isn't widely used outside the UK and even there less so than in earlier times, so a little background may be in order.

Bristol has been an important English seaport for more than a thousand years. The city is actually several miles from the sea and stands on the estuary of the River Avon. Bristol's habour has one of the most variable tidal flows anywhere in the world and the water level can vary by more than 30 feet between tides. Ships that were moored there were beached at each low tide. Consequently they had to be of sturdy construction and the goods in their holds needed to be securely stowed. The problem was resolved in 1803 with the construction of the Floating Harbour. There's no absolute proof that the term 'Bristol fashion' originates with that geography but the circumstantial evidence seems very strongly in favour of it.

Just as an aside, Bristol has another linguistic claim to fame. In earlier days the town was called Bristowe (or Brigstow). A quirk of the local spoken dialect is to add els to the end of words, hence Bristowe became Bristol. Another nice example of this is the name for the laminate sheeting used on worktops. You might call this Formica; in Bristol it is Formical.

'Ship-shape and Bristol fashion' is actually two phrases merged into one. Ship-shape came first and has been used since the 17th century. It is recorded in Sir Henry Manwayring's The sea-mans dictionary, 1644:

"It [the rake] being of no use for the Ship, but only for to make her Ship shapen, as they call it."

Bristol fashion was added later and is first seen in print during Bristol's heyday as a trading port, in Richard Dana Jr's Two years before the mast, 1840:

"Everything on board 'ship-shape and Bristol fashion'."

Admiral William Henry Smyth's 1865 Sailor's Word-book - an alphabetical digest of nautical terms, which is a treasure trove of nautically inspired phrases, has a definition of the phrase:

"Said when Bristol was in its palmy commercial days - and its shipping was all in proper good order."

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