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Davy Jones’ locker

Q From Ed Cole: I am looking for the origin of Davy Jones’ locker. I know there is a nautical connotation, reference made to pirates and swashbucklers and the like, but have been unable to get a good clear origin of the term.

A It’s hard to have to write this yet again, but we don’t know.

But we do know that the phrase goes back at least two centuries, since the first clear reference comes from Tobias Smollett, who wrote in The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle in 1751 that: “This same Davy Jones, according to the mythology of sailors, is the fiend that presides over all the evil spirits of the deep, and is often seen in various shapes, perching among the rigging on the eve of hurricanes, ship-wrecks, and other disasters to which sea-faring life is exposed, warning the devoted wretch of death and woe”. So his locker is the bottom of the sea, the ocean’s depths.

So much for facts. There are various stories about the origin of the term, usually attempting to identify a real David Jones. One of this name was said to run a pub in London, with a neat sideline — a sort of privatised press gang — of drugging unwary patrons and storing them in his ale lockers at the back of the pub until they could be taken on board some ship. Another story tries to identify him with Jonah of the Old Testament, who — you will recall — spent three days and three nights in the belly of a great fish; but Jonah survived. Yet a third theory says, as you suggest, that Davy Jones was a fearsome pirate, who loved to make his captives walk the plank, so they ended up at the bottom of the sea; but nobody, so far as I know, has identified this alarming outlaw.

We can be fairly certain that all these stories are folklore. The real Davy Jones — if there ever was one — remains obscure.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 4 Sep. 1999

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Last modified: 4 September 1999.