Word Nerd

Shanties by a canal

Shanty [ʃæn•ti]


1. a shoddily built shack; a hovel or dilapidated cabin

2. originally, a sailor’s work song, often sung in unison during labor at sea to concentrate on the rhythm of the job on deck. The term has come to encompass any ballad about life on the ocean.


3. a class-based pejorative cruelly projected upon an area or people to convey a sense of poverty or general unkemptness, i.e., Shantytown or Shanty Irish

These two different definitions — one landlocked and dismissed, the other launched from the tongue into salty air — both arise from the Francophonic world with separate roots. The hovel shanty is the 19th century output of a Canadian French noun, chantier, meaning “logging camp” or “hut,” and burrows all the way back, through Old French and Latin, to the Ancient Greek word, kanthḗlios, which refers to a donkey.

The sea shanty is a now-common variant spelling of chanty, first noted in 1867, which burst out of the modern French verb, chanter, meaning “to sing,” and is closely related linguistically to chant, as in the repetitive expression of an excited crowd.

“Sea shanty singers (from the French chanter, to sing) will be in full voice this weekend for the Graveyard of the Pacific event that takes place Saturday and Sunday at various locations, including the Fort Columbia Theatre, the Columbia River Maritime Museum and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at Cape Disappointment.”

—Cate Gabel, “Sea shanties ring in Graveyard of the Pacific weekend,” ​Coast Weekend, Oct. 21, 2010

“On Saturday, the Port of Ilwaco is under attack.

The black flag will be raised at high noon to cannon and musket fire, as swashbucklers, scallywags, muzzleloaders and mountain men launch a rambunctious raid, led by the Rifle Loot & Salvage Co.

“As black-powder cannon salutes blast and the sounds of sea shanties fill the air, a living history pirate encampment will display weapons, cargo and knot-tying. Visitors can also taste biscuits and learn how to prevent scurvy.”

—“All hands on deck,” Coast Weekend, May 18, 2006

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