Last week HH tweeted the screenshot above—taken from a brilliantly-titled dictionary of Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present—published in 1890. And, well, it probably all needs a bit more explaining.
Admiral is one of those deceptively straightforward words behind which lies the kind of history that keeps etymologists awake at night. They should really cut down on the caffeine after 5pm.
It’s all a bit of a bewildering hodgepodge—the OED’s etymology alone comprises a 1,300-word essay—but the basic theory is that, at its root, admiral derives from the old Arabic title amir, as in emir and emirates. This ancient title was then borrowed into and reshaped by the vocabularies of various Mediterranean countries and cultures around 1000 years ago, and via the all-conquering Normans eventually began to appear in English texts in the early thirteenth century.
Initially, admiral was used as a fairly general title for a ruler, a leader, or a military commander; things get confusing when we try to find out how it came to be used exclusively of a naval leader.
The first person we know to have held a naval title along the lines of admiral was the not-all-that-impressive-sounding George of Antioch in the early 1100s. George, who had already worked in several similar naval positions in Arabic-speaking North Africa, was put in charge of the fleet of the even-less-impressive-sounding Roger II, a twelfth-century King of Sicily, who gave him the Latin title ammiratus ammiratorum.
It’s around this time that (etymologically, at least) things become a little hazy: it could be that George’s title ammiratus is a Mediaeval Latin spin on the Arabic title amir, which George would certainly have known of having served in North Africa. Alternatively, it could be a purely Latin title, with no connection to Arabic at all—on its own, ammiratus ammiratorum literally means “the most admired of the admired”.
Wherever the word’s ancient history might lead us from there, however, the fact is that by the time of George’s appointment Sicily too had been conquered by the Norman French—and it was the Normans who were responsible for transplanting the title from the sunny southern Mediterranean to the rainy European northwest.
So. If that’s the story of admiral, what about the admiral of the narrow seas?
Well, in eighteenth century slang—long after admiral had established itself as a naval title in England—a curious trend emerged for applying fictitious “titles” to various people and characters. So a Captain Queernabs was “a shabby, ill-dressed fellow”, and a Captain Cork was a man who was “slow in passing the bottle”. A boatswain-captain was the naval equivalent of a swot: an overly competent seaman who never seemed to put a foot wrong. An admiral of the red was a wine-drinker. An admiral of the white was a coward. An admiral of the blue was a drunkard, or a publican (who would typically wear a blue tabard). An admiral of the red, white and blue was a ludicrously or ostentatiously dressed person. And an admiral of the narrow seas was the queasy, mulvathered seafarer mentioned above.