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Up the creek

Q From Mark Sinden: In a Channel 4 Time Team archaeology special about the Royal Naval Hospital in Gosport, Tony Robinson asserted that the phrase up the creek comes from the route to the hospital that wounded naval personnel took along Haslar Creek. Is this true, or is there an earlier and different origin for the phrase?

A I saw that, too, and was struck by the supposed connection. The hospital was on a promontory overlooking the harbour and dockyard of Portsmouth, on the south coast of England. It was opened in 1753 to care for the sick and wounded of the Royal Navy and closed in 2009. As you say, it was at first approached by boat from the harbour up Haslar Creek.

The TV programme reported on the excavation of bodies that had been interred in the graveyard at the hospital in the age of sail and implied that up the creek — to be in severe trouble or difficulty — had appeared no later than the early nineteenth century. Behind the suggested origin of the idiom lay the melancholy fact that a large proportion of those who were taken to the hospital up Haslar Creek at that period were so seriously sick or wounded that they ended up being buried there. This is how one website puts it:

In the early days of Haslar Royal Naval Hospital patients had to be transferred to the hospital by [boat] from the harbour because there was no bridge. It is thought that the phrase “up the creek” may have originated from sailors who knew that if you were rowed to Haslar you were in trouble.

Other references also suggest this is the origin. Peter Viggers, MP for Gosport, mentioned it as fact in an adjournment debate in the House of Commons about the closure of the hospital in March 2009.

Checking the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary might seem to refute this whole idea, since the earliest example recorded there is dated 1941, in an American radio play written by Arthur Miller. By the wonders of modern searches, it is possible to improve on that, though you’ll appreciate there are far too many literal references to people being up creeks for it to be easy to search for. The earliest explicit reference I’ve so far found is this:

On the third of January we received an awful jolt. The British gave us notice to get out of their Bowhuts, as they were going to tear them down. We were up the creek without a paddle.

Heaven, Hell, or Hoboken, by Ray Neil Johnson, 1919. This recounts the war experiences of a US machine gun company in France. A Bowhut would seem to be a kind of temporary prefabricated shelter, perhaps a precursor to the Nissen hut.

It’s interesting that this early example should already have been elaborated by the addition of without a paddle, indicating that you were at the mercy of events and were powerless to influence your situation.

There are mildly tantalising earlier appearances in US newspapers. In 1915, a report quoted a local councillor: “there is something rotten up the creek”; a letter in 1901 argued “there was something dead up the creek”; one from 1896 scathingly referred to “the boys up the creek”. These and others, like the one that follows, are all from Texas newspapers. Might it even have originated in that state?

Question everything, try everything and hold fast to that democracy which is sound and good. The fact that you are advised not to question this scheme or that trick is of itself enough to arouse your suspicion and to lead to the belief that there is rascality up the creek.

The Galveston Daily News, Texas, 24 Feb. 1896.

I suspect that this form of the expression actually had a slightly different idea behind it: that rural backwaters — and those who lived up them — were the source of infamy and skulduggery.

Some writers, including the late William Safire, have suggested that up the creek might be from the older to be up Salt River, which sometimes appeared as up Salt Creek. From the 1820s this was a way to mock the inhabitants of the backwoods of the US for their uncouth manners and uncultivated speech (the Salt River, if it ever had a literal association, is sometimes said to have been the one in Kentucky). Later, if you sent somebody — in particular a political opponent — up Salt Creek, you thoroughly defeated him.

As Jonathon Green suggests in Chambers Slang Dictionary, up the creek was more probably a euphemism for up shit creek. As with up the creek, the OED’s earliest entry for this is comparatively recent, from 1937, but the recording of rude slang is notoriously poor. A rare example takes it back well into the previous century:

He, Parker, then said, “well, our men put old Lincoln up Shit creek, and we’ll put old Dill up.”

Report of the US Secretary of War, 1868. This is from the sworn testimony of the freeman Augustus Lorins, concerning the murder of Solomon G W Dill in South Carolina on 4 June 1868, only three years after President Lincoln’s assassination. Mr Dill had deeply offended his neighbours by espousing the Republican cause in the reconstruction period following the Civil War.

There can be no doubt that up shit creek and up the creek are both American in origin. As confirmation, neither can be found in British sources of the nineteenth century, not even in verbatim transcripts such as those of trials at the Old Bailey in London. So the origins of up the creek can’t be linked to Haslar.

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Page created 26 Jun 2010