Q From Tad Spencer: Please could you tell me where the phrase shiver my timbers originated?
A This is one of those supposedly nautical expressions that is better known through its appearances in fiction than by any actual sailors’ usage. It’s an exclamation that alludes to a ship striking some obstacle so violently that the timbers of her hull shiver, or break into small pieces. It’s an oath along the lines of “May I be dashed into pieces like a ship hitting a rock!”
It is first recorded as being used by Captain Frederick Marryat in Jacob Faithful in 1835: “I won’t thrash you Tom. Shiver my timbers if I do”. I’ve now found another example from the same year, in a story in the Huron Reflector of 15 September: “Shiver my timbers if I do!” said he bluntly. “What should I do if you were gone to the sharks? I love you with all my soul, and if you will just look kindly on a poor sailor, you shall not be desolate, while there is a spar afloat or a shot in the locker.” These two appearances show that it was originally meant to be taken seriously, and may indeed have reflected a genuine sailors’ oath, though we have no record of it other than in fiction.
It has gained a firm place in the language because almost fifty years later Robert Louis Stevenson found it to be just the kind of old-salt saying that fitted the character of Long John Silver in Treasure Island in 1883: “Cross me, and you’ll go where many a good man’s gone before you ... some to the yard-arm, shiver my timbers, and some by the board, and all to feed the fishes”.
Since then, it’s mainly been the preserve of the writers of second-rate seafaring yarns or humorists looking for an easy line. It was being mocked by Jerome K Jerome (author of Three Men in a Boat) as early as 1889, in his humorous work Stage-land: The Curious Habits and Customs of its Inhabitants: “The thing that the stage sailor most craves in this life is that somebody should shiver his timbers. ‘Shiver my timbers!’ is the request he makes to every one he meets. But nobody ever does it.”