Pompey, nickname for Portsmouth

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Fri Dec 8 13:18:58 UTC 2006

Pompey  OED: Origin unknown 1. A nickname for:    a. The town and dockyard of
Portsmouth, in Hampshire.    b. Portsmouth Football Club. Also attrib. (1899)
2. to dodge Pompey: see DODGE v. 13. (1916). ADDITIONS SERIES 1993 Pompey, n.
Senses 1, 2 in Dict. become 2, 3. Add:    1. Colloq. phr. paws off, Pompey! =
hands off s.v. HAND n. 54. Now rare. [....] (1803)

This webpage offers nine proposed origins:


I don't claim to know the origin, but, for starters, some are more plausible
than others, and here are a few notes and an abbreviated list:

1. Agnes Weston lecturing; a sailor awakes to hear Pompey died, and says "Poor
Old Pompey" [undocumented? ignores shared letters of the names?; even if she
gave such a lecture and got such a comment, why would it transfer to a city
2. P. sailors climb Pompey's Pillar in Alexandria in 1781 and are known as
Pompey's Boys [the latter name undocumented near 1781?]
3. Nearby Roman ruins like Pompeii [a stretch; different spelling and
4. pomp of Royal Navy [vague]
5. Bombay wedding gift becomes Pompey [a stretch]
6. Drunken pronunciation [er...; perhaps the weakest of the 9 guesses]
7. log abbr. Pom. P, Portsmouth Point [attested?; ignores the ship name;
webauthor's preference]
8. French ship Pompee captured in 1793 and moored in Portsmouth [historically
attested; my current preference]
9. Firemen known as "pompiers" (UK footballers pick French name?]

1904 (though g-bks unaccountably gives 1899) Traffics and Discoveries By Rudyard
Kipling, "Their Lawful Occasions" p.106: "Between you an' me Frankie, we are the
_Gnome_, now in the Fleet Reserve at Pompey--Portsmouth, I should say." Kipling
did sail out of Portsmouth earlier. For what it may be worth, the annotations
at the Kipling Society
http://www.kipling.org.uk/bookmart_fra.htm give:
"[Page 115, line 5]  Pompey It now seems certain that this name for Portsmouth
derived from the old French 3rd-rate Pompée, captured at Toulon in 1793, and
utilised as a guard-ship at Portsmouth. She was broken up in 1817."

1841 Lives of the British admirals, and naval history of Great Britain, chiefly
abridged from the work... By John Campbell, p.543:

[....] during the election at Portsmouth in 1833, when it had been asked by his
opponents who he was?...."I am captain Charles Napier, who 25 years ago....One
of the ships, (the Hautpoult) was capyured by the Pompey and Castor, the other
two escaped by superior sailing. [....]"

1863 The sailor hero; or, The frigate and the lugger By F Claudius Armstrong
p.199 [g-snippet view]:

.. I will send across Channel to Portsmouth, and land her crew some miles down
... The cause of all this bloodshed and fury on the part of the slaves, Pompey
us, was the frightful cruelty practised upon them chiefly by John Sinclair. ...

1854 Glossary of Northamptonshire Words and Phrases: With Examples of Their
Colloquial Use, and... By Anne Elizabeth Baker p.57:

"Paws off, Pompey." A phrase in very common use, to repress impatient or
impertinent curiosity.

So far, the most parsimonious nickname explanation would appear to involve the
ship name Pompee/Pompey.

Stephen Goranson

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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