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  #1  
Old 16 April 2010, 07:21 PM
Bythos
 
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Default "King's Shilling" myth

Heard this on QI last night. From Wikipedia:

"One trick supposedly employed by press gangs was to slip the shilling into a drink. If the prospective soldier drank the drink to the bottom (so that the shilling was now visible), it was taken as a sign that they had accepted impressment. It is believed that glass bottomed tankards became popular as a result of this practice. This is believed to be the origin of the phrase "to be taken for a mug.""

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King%27s_shilling
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  #2  
Old 16 April 2010, 09:35 PM
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Did QI say it was true, or not? Not that I trust QI in these things, but I've heard this before and often wondered about it.

To "take the King's Shilling" literally just means to enlist. (Brewer's backs that up.) There's no overtone of press-ganging there, you're just taking the King's money to serve the King.

On the other hand, press-ganging did happen. To quote Brewer's again:

Quote:
Individual captains of ships provided their own parties until the demands of the 18th-century Navy led to the establishment of an Impress Service with depots where seafarers abounded. Apart from seizing men from taverns, they seized merchant sailors from ships at sea and other places, and pressed men formed about half of a ship's crew.

...

The word has nothing to do with 'pressing' in the sense of 'forcing' but derives from the 'prest' or 'imprest' money (French pręter, 'to lend') advanced on enlistment, rather like the army's King's Shilling.
(Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 15th ed., 1996)

From the same source, "mug" as a fool is just from the word for "face" and might comes from the gypsy usage as a simpleton or "muff" - somebody who's bad at games. No mention of putting shillings in drinks.

According to Chamber's Dictionary of Etymology, "mug" for "face" was first recorded in 1708,
Quote:
possibly alluding to drinking mugs commonly made in the shape of a grotesque human face
. A bit like Toby Jugs, perhaps.

Cassell's Dictionary of Slang reckons "mug" as "idiot" comes from a SE English expression, and refers to "one into whom one can 'pour' any nonsense".

I can't see any decent sources that back up the connection of "mug" to the idea of dropping a shilling into one's pint so as to forcibly enlist somebody in the navy. ("To be taken for a mug" just means "to be taken for a fool".)

Like you, I'm also dubious as to whether the practice of dropping coins into drinks was really widespread, but that's a different matter. Even if it was, it seems that's not where the word "mug" for "idiot" comes from.
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Old 16 April 2010, 09:41 PM
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One trick supposedly employed by press gangs was to slip the shilling into a drink. If the prospective soldier drank the drink to the bottom (so that the shilling was now visible), it was taken as a sign that they had accepted impressment. It is believed that glass bottomed tankards became popular as a result of this practice.
Why the subterfuge, though? Clearly the prospective soldier/sailor wasn't volunteering for anything but was instead being tricked into "accepting" impressment, so what was the point? How was that functionally any different than simply physically grabbing men and impressing them? Certainly the alleged tankard trick wasn't fooling anyone into believing the impressed had actually enlisted of their own volition.
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Old 16 April 2010, 10:03 PM
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A couple of years ago BBC History Magazine blew apart lots of myths about the Royal Navy. Impressment was a form of conscription and there were rules about who could be pressed and who could not.

1. Any man pressed into the Royal Navy had eight days to appeal against his impressment. (Thus the idea of a man being coshed outside a tavern and waking up the next day miles out at sea is a myth.)

2. Physical force was only allowed if the prospective pressed man tried to run away. (Not that this rule was never broken, of course.)

3. No man who did not have a naval background could be pressed. That was why press gangs used to go round dockland taverns because most men there would have a naval background.

4. No man could be pressed if he had a wife or dependent children. Both 3 and 4 could be used at any appeal at an appeal.

5. There were strict age limits to impressment (from 17 to 45 from memory, but don't quote me).

6. Sailors could be pressed from a merchant ship, but any pressed sailor could still use 4 and 5 as an appeal against impressment. The merchant ship must still be left with enough sailors to safely sail it back to port. In effect many sailors volunteered for impressment when a press gang visited their ship because conditions were often better on Royal Navy ships. Food and pay were certainly better. (The magazine also exploded the myth about maggots in biscuits.)

As a result there were very few pressed sailors at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Fewer than 10% of Royal Navy sailors were pressed. Far more sailors were pressed in the French Navy and this is given as one reason why the Royal Navy won the battle. (Volunteers had greater commitment, usually had more experience and were better trained.)
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Old 16 April 2010, 10:12 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by snopes View Post
Why the subterfuge, though? Clearly the prospective soldier/sailor wasn't volunteering for anything but was instead being tricked into "accepting" impressment, so what was the point?
Given the apparent etymology of "impress" as meaning "to have been advanced money (on condition of future service)", I can see how it might happen that somebody in a pub might be "lent" money by his new friends in order to buy a few rounds, and only later realise that this meant he was now obliged to serve. But you wouldn't have to drop the money in somebody's drink to do that...
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  #6  
Old 16 April 2010, 10:20 PM
Troodon Troodon is offline
 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Andrew of Ware View Post
A couple of years ago BBC History Magazine blew apart lots of myths about the Royal Navy. Impressment was a form of conscription and there were rules about who could be pressed and who could not.
On the other hand, enough American sailors ended up being pressed that a war was started (partially) over the matter, so the rules couldn't have been that strict.
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  #7  
Old 16 April 2010, 11:33 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bythos View Post
"One trick supposedly employed by press gangs was to slip the shilling into a drink. If the prospective soldier drank the drink to the bottom (so that the shilling was now visible), it was taken as a sign that they had accepted impressment. It is believed that glass bottomed tankards became popular as a result of this practice. This is believed to be the origin of the phrase "to be taken for a mug.""
Living in a port town that was once a British colony, I've heard this story pretty much word-for-word. However, tour guides and the like are well-known for their bullshit.

Being in the military, I've also heard people refer to being in uniform or on duty as being "on the Queen's dime."
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Old 16 April 2010, 11:55 PM
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Originally Posted by Richard W View Post
Given the apparent etymology of "impress" as meaning "to have been advanced money (on condition of future service)", I can see how it might happen that somebody in a pub might be "lent" money by his new friends in order to buy a few rounds, and only later realise that this meant he was now obliged to serve.
But that still raises the same issue: How is tricking people into "signing up" for military service any different than out-and-out conscription?
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  #9  
Old 20 April 2010, 12:19 AM
Malruhn Malruhn is offline
 
 
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It's semantics.

If I grab you and throw you into uniform, you've been conscripted.

If I PAY you and you accept the money, you've been HIRED. By chugging that last swallow of ale and taking that shilling into your mouth, you've "accepted" it... and therefore you've "accepted" the going wage and are therefore "hired."

LEGALLY, it's damned similar - but semantically it's worlds apart.
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  #10  
Old 20 April 2010, 02:59 AM
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From the old folk song Arthur McBride: (planxty's version)

Quote:
I had a first cousin called Arthur McBride,
He and I took a stroll down by the seaside;
A seekin' good fortune and what might betide,
Twas just as the day was a'dawnin'.

Then after restin' we both took a tramp,
We met Sergeant Harper and Corporal Cramp,
Besides the wee drummer, who beat up our camp,
With his row-dee-dow-dow in the morning.

He says "my young fellows if you will enlist,
A guinea you quickly shall have in your fist.
Besides a crown, for to kick up the dust,
And to drink the King's health in the morning"

Had we been such fools as to take the advance,
The wee bit of mornin' we had to run chance,
For you'd think it no scruple to send us to France,
Where we would be killed in the morning."

He says, "My young fellows, if I hear but one word,
I instantly now will out with my sword,
And into your bodies as strength will afford,
So now my gay devils take warning."


But Arthur and I we took in the odds,
We gave them no chance for to launch out their swords,
Our whacking shillelaghs came over their heads,
And paid them right smart in the morning.

As for the wee drummer, we rifled his pouch,
And we made a football of his row-dee-dow-dow,
And into the ocean for to rock and to roll,
And bade it a tedious returnin'.

As for the old rapier that hung at his side
We flung it as far as we would in the tide
"To the devil I pitch you," says Arthur McBride
"To temper your steel in the morning."
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  #11  
Old 06 April 2011, 09:59 PM
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Royalty

Comment: From the Elizabethan era to the end of Napoleonic Wars, the Royal
Navy used impressment to coerce eligible men into service.

There’s a rumor that one of the tactics used to accomplish this was the
dropping of a king’s shilling into a pewter tankard. (The king’s shilling
was given to a new volunteer recruit, and accepted as a sort of contract.)
Once the man had finished the drink, he’d discover the coin and be
immediately conscripted. The rumor is that this practice resulted in
tavern owners having tankards made with glass bottoms to prevent this.

(Modern-day renaissance re-enactors have many of these such tankards with
glass bottoms.)
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  #12  
Old 06 April 2011, 10:26 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Troodon View Post
On the other hand, enough American sailors ended up being pressed that a war was started (partially) over the matter, so the rules couldn't have been that strict.
What the rules were in the London and what the rules were when you were short-handed and months away from any disciplinary action were quite different.

Plus, the English were allowed to seize deserters without regard to these rules. While it was easy to figure out who was a former English sailor on a vessel crewed with French or Spaniards, figuring that out on a ship with American sailors was a bit trickier.
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