The British east coast fishing city of Hull was the venue recently for the International Sea Shanty Festival. A newspaper report described their history as seafarers’ work songs, helping groups of men undertaking heavy labour synchronise their efforts. The report mentioned types like the short drag shanty for quick tasks needing a powerful heave, and halyard shanties for prolonged and heavy work. Then it went on: “In the Caribbean, shanties were also used for communal moving of huts, giving rise to the expression ‘shanty town’ ”.
Sorry, but no. We have two words shanty in English, with distinct origins, which have been muddled. On the evidence of this piece, somebody has assumed there is just the one word, and has then constructed an edifice of conjecture to show how sailors’ songs could be linked to shoreside shacks. It’s a splendid example of folk etymology in action.
The word meaning a small, crudely built hut is of North American origin and is first recorded in Ohio, in the interior of the continent, in 1820: “These people lived in what is here called a shanty. This is a hovel of about 10 feet by 8, made somewhat in the form of an ordinary cow-house”. And four years later, we have this from the Canadian Magazine: “They commence by building a log cabin called a Chanty to shelter them from the weather, and hence another appellation they are known by, namely Chanty Men”. To judge by the geographical distance between these near contemporary citations, the word by then had already gained a fair currency in North America, which suggests that it had been in use for at least some years before its first appearance in print.
Most dictionaries say it’s from the French word chantier for a timber-yard or storage place, which derived in turn from the Latin cantherius, “beam, rafter”, that also gives us gantry. According to Claplin’s Dictionary of Canadian French of 1894, a chantier was “an establishment regularly organized in the forests in winter for the felling of trees; the head-quarters at which the woodcutters assemble after their day’s work”. In modern Canadian French, the word is always plural, and means a lumber camp.
However, it’s also said to have originated in the Irish sean tig, “old house”, supposedly supported by the large numbers of expatriate Irishmen who were employed on projects and lived in the earliest shanty towns. But the influx of Irish workers occurred later than the first record of the word, which was a long way from the coastal areas at which they would have arrived. So the French origin seems much the more probable, especially in view of the early spellings and the existence of shantyman as a Canadian term for what we might otherwise call a wood-cutter or lumberjack.
Shantyman is also the name for a singer of the other sort of shanty. Surprisingly, for an form usually considered to have been in its heyday in the eighteenth-century, this word is first recorded only in 1869, though it had probably been lurking in the oral tradition for decades. It is often said to have come from another French word, chantez, the imperative form of the verb “to sing”, though dictionaries are rather cautious in this attribution because the evidence is uncertain.
The moral from all this must be that we should treat popular etymologies with extreme caution.