Stupid Question ™
July 17, 2003
By John Ruch
Q: Who is Davy Jones and what is his locker doing at the bottom of the ocean?
Q: What’s behind that annoying British phrase “swimmingly”?
A: Since my intended piece on the fascinating world of unclaimed luggage (much, much more on that next week, kids) was deep-sixed by forces beyond my control, I’ll wade into these nautical matters for your poolside reading enjoyment.
Davy Jones is simply a personification of the sea, especially its mercurial dangers. His locker isn’t on the bottom of the ocean—it is the bottom of the ocean. He keeps drowned sailors inside it, you see.
Davy has lived in sailor slang from at least the early 1700s. The earliest references suggest that the phrase “Davy Jones’ locker” is where it all started, though Davy is often referred to without mention of his cabinetry.
“Davy Jones” is pretty clearly a John Doe name, probably a generic moniker for a sailor. Nonetheless, ivory-tower bibliomaniacs have naturally come up with a host of supposed etymologies, each more insanely complicated than the last.
The stupidly reductionist theory: Jones was a 1500s pub owner who hid ale inside a locker.
The needlessly complex theory: Davy Jones is a compound of two corrupted words: Davy from a West Indian word for a malicious spirit, and Jones from Jonah, the Biblical character swallowed by a sea monster.
The religious obsessive theory: “Davy” came from St. David, the patron saint of Wales, who incidentally has no sea connections to his legend whatsoever. (That theory also relies on Jonah for Jones.) This explanation is favored by the abysmal pop etymologist Robert Hendrickson, which to my mind is reason enough to reject it.
Thankfully, it definitely has nothing to do with Davy Jones of the Monkees.
As for “swimmingly,” it means to do something easily or successfully. It’s known from the early 1600s.
Today, it’s typically used in the formation, “It went swimmingly.” For example, “My unclaimed luggage column did not go swimmingly.”
“Swimming,” as an adjective, has also been used to mean the same thing, though not for so long.
The usage seems a little weird. After all, swimming is anything but easy, at least for humans, even highly trained ones.
But it’s really got more to do with how easy swimming looks, especially for fish and other aquatic life. It all goes back to the oldest adjectival meaning of “swimming”—something that swims by nature.
Annoying is, of course, in the ear of the beholder. The term certainly smacks of classic British pep. Have you tried saying it with an Oxford accent?