Shipping News: The British Man O’ War

Dominic Serres, The Elder (British, French, 1722 to 1793) oil on canvas [marine] painting, An English Man-O-War Anchored in a Fortified Harbor, unsigned.You pick up strange abilities after years in the antiques business. You watch Westerns with friends and criticize the historical accuracy of the movie’s firearms choices, you learn what words like antimacassar mean, and you start to be able to identify odd things like the ships in marine paintings.

Take, for instance, the man o’ war (which can appear as man of war, man-of-war, man-o’-war or the plural men-of-war), which was a term of the British Royal Navy for a class of ship. A term used for three centuries, from the 1500s through the 1800s, it denoted an armed warship or frigate that had cannons (there were six ratings for a man o’ war based on the number of cannons, ranging from a first-rate one with as many as 124 guns down to a sixth-rate ship with only 20 or so) and relied on sails for power (as opposed to oars, which were the primary source of power on a galley).

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the name is that it runs contrary to the English tendency to treat all ships as feminine. The theory is that the name came from the “men of war,” the well-armed men transported by the ship.

Not to be confused of course with either the racehorse Man O’ War, who was named by Eleanor Belmont in honor of his owner and her husband, August Belmont, Jr., who was in France at the time of the horse’s birth, having enlisted at 65 to serve in World War I, or the Portuguese man o’ war jellyfish, so named because it was thought to resemble the Portuguese version of the warship at full sail. See, you learn strange things in the antiques business.