Leatherneck [Was: antedating: jarhead]

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Mon Feb 22 18:15:24 UTC 2010

Yes, I was somewhat puzzled by the absence of earlier references to
"leathernecks"--certainly, if this were naval slang, it would have been
around much longer, particularly since the time they actually *had*
leather stock. It seems absurd to start calling them "leathernecks" 60
years after they stopped being such.

And I did come across the Farmer entry, but ignored it--not so much
because it was contrary to my theory, but because it simply followed the
entry in the 1890 slang dictionary that I did cite, and because, as you
say, it appeared rather brusque. (In fact, Farmer also lists
"leatherneck" as a synonym for soldier, along with a dozen other terms,
including "mudcrusher" and "fly-slicer", under that entry.) Given the
incestuous relationship between many of these dictionaries, I've also
made clear my suspicion that the OED entry was also mistakenly based on
Barere/Leland and Farmer. My argument is that all three are plainly
incorrect. The use in the 1890s-early 1900s in the Royal Navy clearly
followed the pattern of US use, this is despite the fact that US Marines
are a part of the Navy while Royal Marines are simply GIs stationed on
ships (but still a separate unit). I am not quite sure what the British
chain of command would have been, but it's quite clear that sailors, as
a matter of principle, were not intended to be used as infantry--e.g.,
landing parties would consist of marines and the necessary complement of
sailors to row the boats to get them ashore. In this sense, otherwise
rather silly and romantic Horatio Hornblower series appears to have been

My purpose was less to antedate the use--which, at best, would have been
a couple of years to a decade--and more to prod Jesse & Co. to look into
revising the entry. I am generally reluctant to post speculations
(notwithstanding occasional flubs with Google Books), but, in this case,
I am quite convinced--both from direct evidence and rather simple
logic--that I am correct in this call. An expert in British military
uniforms of the 19th century could make this quite plain, if the
difference between the marines and regular infantry existed.

I am also now more inclined to distrust Farmer and other period
dictionaries--particularly when they are in conflict with earlier sources.

While definition by synonym may be utilitarian, I am more inclined
toward the roots of the German and Russian lexicography which looked for
differences in use rather than similarities. If we were to resort to the
blanket use of a thesaurus to define unfamiliar words (rather than
simply choose among alternatives whose use we recognize), much of
English prose would become closer to modern Chinglish (a lot of which
can be traced to defective dictionaries).


On 2/22/2010 6:46 AM, Robin Hamilton wrote:
> ...
> If the absence of evidence can be construed as evidence of absence, there's
> a curious lacuna in Hobson-Jobson -- no entry for "leatherneck" at all --
> and a brusqueness in Vol. 4 of Farmer and Henley's _Slang_:
> LEATHERNECK, _subs._ (nautical) -- A soldier.  For synonyms _see_ MUDCRUSHER
> (As so often, F&H illustrate the utility of returning to the origins of
> British lexicography in their use of definition by synonym, a practice which
> perhaps deserves to be reinstated.)
> Robin

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