Research for BBC series QI

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    Justin P


    I’m the Associate Producer of the BBC TV series QI and I wondered if I might check a nautical question with you all. According to the Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea the origin of the phrase to ‘shake a leg’ originated when Royal Navy sailors were not allowed ashore in home ports so had their wives on board. Come the change of watch the boatswain’s mate would walk round shouting ‘Show a leg’ to check only women were asleep. If however a hairy male leg protruded from the hammock then they were turfed out.

    It’s a very neat explanation but we’re having trouble finding contemporary evidence for it. Does anyone know of any?

    Many thanks in advance.


    David Hepper

    Like several such tales, the idea that it was associated with sparing the women onboard is a fanciful invention – there are several early 19th century sources that give the phrase, but none of them mention any association other than simply indicating “get a move on!”

    Word Histories website claims the first citation of the phrase appears on p.446 in the book “Travels of four years and a half in the United States of America; During 1798, 1799, 1800, 1801, and 1802 (London, 1803), by the John Davies

    “Cunningham (Striking the deck with a hand-spike)- Starboard- watch ahoy ! Heave out there ! Heave out ! Shew a leg there ! Shew a leg ! Must I send a hauling- line down for you star-baulins ! Hoa ! the watch ahoy ! !

    and from Ships of War (London, 1824), by George Charles Smith

    “The boatswain’s mate ran along the deck under the hammocks calling out “Turn out there, turn out, every man jack of you – show a leg there, show a leg, come, skulkers, tumble up”

    From Sailors Word Book (London 1867) by Admiral William Smyth

    “Show a leg! An exclamation from the boatswain’s mate, or master-at-arms, for people to show that they are awake on being called. Often “Show a leg and turn out.”

    None of them have any mention of sparing the women on board

    ‘show a leg’

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