From Monte Carlo, we’re heading as far west as it’s possible to go in mainland Europe: Portugal.
England and Portugal are two of the world’s oldest allies -if not indeed the oldest of all. On 16 June 1373, the two nations, represented by Edward III of England and King Ferdinand and Queen Eleanor of Portugal, signed an Anglo-Portuguese Treaty that united the two countries in ‘faithfully obeying, true, faithful, constant, mutual, and perpetual friendships, unions, alliances, and leagues of sincere affection’. The treaty is considered the oldest active treaty of its kind in the world.
Where is Porto, Portugal? – Porto, Portugal Map – Porto, Portugal Map Download Free Photo Gallery
As long-standing friends and allies, surely Portugal will fare well in the English language, and won’t fall victim to the same snide sideswipes and stereotypes that coloured, say, the Dutch entry in this my blog? Well
In his 1929 collection of Sea Slang, the lexicographer Frank C. Bowen explained that sailors in the nineteenth century used the designation Portuguese as ‘the old Navy name for all foreigners except Frenchmen’. Insulting, yes, but perhaps more revealingly uncomplimentary to the British than to anyone else. Another maritime expression, Portugee devil [sic], was defined somewhat openly in an 1840 edition of the London Saturday Journal as something that ‘when good [is] too good’. Wilfred Granville’s
Dictionary of Sailors’ Slang (1962) explained that to Victorian seafarers a Portuguese parliament was ‘a rowdy discussion in which everybody talks and nobody listens’ – perhaps a reference either to the noisy outspokenness of Portuguese recruits, or to the relative indecipherability of the Portuguese language to English ears.
And then there’s James Redding Ware’s dictionary of Passing English of the Victorian Era, in which he recorded an entry for a Portuguese pumping. Ominously flagging it as an expression ‘not to be learnt’, Ware explains: Ask sailors the meaning of this phrase, and they may laugh a good deal, but they give no etymology. It is probably nasty.
‘Nasty’ was the word, all right: in his later Dictionary of Unconventional English, Eric Partridge wrote that the phrase ‘refers almost certainly to either defecation or to masturbation’. As the American lexicographer (and Harvard professor of psychology) A. A. Roback put it in his Dictionary of the International Slurs (1944), perhaps this is best defined as ‘a phrase of uncertain but unquestionably questionable meaning’.
Happily, however, there’s more to the Portuguese-English story than thinly veiled xenophobia and questionable pumping. Among the words English speakers owe to their oldest allies is also one of the most obvious: the Portuguese gave us port.
Not port in the sense of a safe harbour, of course; it dates back to the Old English period, and has its roots in a Latin word meaning ‘entrance’ or ‘refuge’. Nor port in the naval context, meaning ‘opposite of starboard,t as it merely helped to identify the side of a vessel more often than not facing the harbour when it is docked. The port we owe to Portugal is the sweet, dark-red wine, which was first described in the English language in the early seventeenth century.
In this context, it’s thought the name port probably first referred simply to any red wine brought into England via Porto, the major port city on Portugal’s north coast. When trade with the likes of France, the Netherlands and Germany became disrupted by conflict during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, trade from England’s allies in Portugal picked up apace to cover the shortfall, and port wines became more popular. Brandy was often mixed with the wine to help preserve it during the lengthy shipping time, but when this enriched taste proved even more popular than the red wine itself, the port began to be deliberately fortified with the spirit during the fermentation process. Port as we know it – and drink it – today was born.
The alliance endured long enough for Portugal to agree to Britain establishing a major Allied naval base on the Portuguese-controlled islands of the Azores, in the north Atlantic Ocean, in 1943. The agreement was ratified by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who recalled his announcement of the arrangement in his multi-volume history of the Second World War:
‘I have an announcement, ’ I said, ‘to make to the House, arising out of the treaty signed between this country and Portugal in the year 1373, between His Majesty King Edward III and King Ferdinand and Queen Eleanor of Portugal. ’ I spoke in a level voice, and made a pause to allow the House to take in the date, 1373. As this soaked in there was something like a gasp. I do not suppose any such continuity of relations between two Powers has ever been, or will ever be, set forth in the ordinary day-to-day work of British diplomacy.
Later dictionaries of slang have tended to side with the latter of these two possibilities, although Partridge, adding that ‘pumping ship’ was once a nautical euphemism for urination, seemed to suggest the former was more likely.
Oddly, this port was originally known as larboard, until an official Order of the Admiralty in 1844 replaced one name with the other to avoid the (presumably quite considerable) confusion between the two. Etymologically, the starboard side is literally the side on which a vessel is steered (from Old English steor, ‘rudder’); the larboard side was the usual loading side (from Old English hladan, ‘to load, to burden’).