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Q From Andrew Jackson, London: Do you perhaps know the origin of the term Andrew for the Royal Navy?

A I don’t. Nobody does, not for sure.

The story most commonly told is that the source is one Lieutenant Andrew Millar. It’s said that he was in charge of a press-gang during the Napoleonic Wars and that he was so zealous and pressed so many men that sailors thought the Navy belonged to him. However, the National Maritime Museum says no such officer has been traced. The nearest I’ve found from the Navy Lists, which is not very near, is that a Dr Andrew Millar was the staff surgeon based at Plymouth dockyard in 1848. We must presume Lieutenant Millar is imaginary.

On the other hand, Andrew was a sixteenth-century slang term for a merchant ship. Shakespeare employed it in The Merchant of Venice, “And see my wealthy Andrew dockt”. One story is that it was named after the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria, whose name has been given to two celebrated twentieth-century ships. There are no written examples of the term after Shakespeare’s time, which may suggest it went out of use and can’t be the source of the modern term. Or it might have been lurking in the spoken language — we have no way of knowing.

The expression Andrew Millar was well known in the nineteenth century. It turns up in print here first:

ANDREW MILLAR’S LUGGER, a king’s ship or vessel.

A Vocabulary of the Flash Language, by James Hardy Vaux, July 1812. Vaux was then a transported criminal in New South Wales and wrote the work in his free moments from the hard labour by which he was punished following some transgression in the colony. He hoped by it to mollify the governor. Flash is an obsolete term referring to thieves, prostitutes, or the underworld.

Half a century later, John Camden Hotten similarly recorded in his Slang Dictionary of 1864 that an Andrew Millar was a ship of war. Three years later, a key variation was recorded:

ANDREW or ANDREW MILLAR. A cant name for a man-of-war and also for government and government authorities.

The Sailor’s Word-Book, by Admiral W H Smyth, 1867.

This was an early indication that the term was moving from being a reference to a single warship to the whole navy. By the end of the century, lower-deck ratings were commonly calling the Royal Navy the Andrew and the name has stuck.

However, researchers have to confess themselves baffled by it.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 30 May 2009

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 30 May 2009.