March 9, 2012
The British Navy has started subjecting sailors to breathalyzer tests, which means the days of grog are probably finally over. Grog had been a tradition since Admiral Vernon first ordered that sailors be served rum mixed with water back in 1740, although the traditional ration of alcohol, whether beer or rum, went back much farther than that. And technically the days of grog ended back in 1970, on July 31st, which is known as "Black Tot Day", when British sailors stopped receiving a daily ration of rum. I didn’t realize that British sailors have been doing without their traditional daily grog for so long. I know I’m showing my ignorance here, but I always thought grog was as deeply a part of the British Navy as being called "limeys". Some people think "limey" is an insult, but it derives from the fact that British sailors were smart enough to take short breaks on long ocean voyages to stop on small islands and pick some citrus fruits and making mixed drinks while sailors from other countries were all dying of scurvy. If I were given a choice between being called a limey and having scurvy you can bet I’d be happy to have my daiquiri with a twist.
That also explains why "scurvy knave" is an insult, and, as insults go, it sounds much worse than "limey". And even though I never had any interest in joining any navy – or for that matter any other organization that involved finding a bunch of guys who dress alike and following them around – as a kid I did sometimes dream of setting sail across the open sea, even though I can barely tell a jib from a jibe or my mast from my mizzen. Maybe that’s why as I grew older I began instead to dream of traveling across the universe in a blue police box, although I actually thought of redesigning it to look like a Coke machine, partly because nobody knows what a police box is anymore, but mainly because I figured that I could save the universe and pick up some spare change along the way, but that’s another story.
And it never occurred to me before, but as I was looking up the history of grog I realized that most mornings when I get up I really don’t feel groggy before I’ve had my morning coffee. No, groggy is what I feel after half a dozen daiquiris. With twists. There should be another word for how I feel before I’ve had my coffee. Perhaps the word for that early morning feeling would be blurry, since everything always looks out of focus when I first get up, unless I fall asleep in front of the television and have that recurring nightmare where I’m in a production of ‘night Mother with Jamie Farr. Here’s a little more linguistics: the term grog came from grogram, which is a fabric made of silk, mohair, and wool, because in those days sailors were so desperate for a drink they would make rum out of anything they could get their hands on. There’s also a story that’s apocryphal, or at the very least completely untrue, about a dead man being shipped overseas in a cask of rum. President Franklin Roosevelt used to like to tell this story during the fish course at White House dinners whenever Roald Dahl, who was a good friend of his in spite of being a thoroughly scurvy knave, was visiting.
According to Roosevelt’s version it was the British ambassador to the United States who passed away while on this side of the pond. He was placed in a cask of rum to preserve his body for the voyage home. Several days out the sailors noticed a strange smell coming from the cask and realized that the ambassador wasn’t holding up that well. They had to cut the cask loose and give him an impromptu burial at sea, but first they discovered a spigot had been hammered into the cask near its base. Someone on board had been using the dead man’s embalming fluid to supplement his daily ration of rum. That is, of course, one version of that story. There’s another version that the body being preserved in rum for the trip home was no less a personage than Admiral Nelson, after he was killed at the battle of Trafalgar. In fact Admiral Nelson’s body was preserved in brandy and returned to England, although I like to think there’s at least a little truth to the story about a spigot being hammered into the cask, and that it wasn’t just one sailor who was drinking the admiral’s brandy. And that for at least a short time afterward there was a tradition among those sailors of saying, "There’s a little Admiral Nelson in all of us."