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Corinthian
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terrulian
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May 3, 2011, 2:52 PM

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I'm researching the origin of the word "Corinthian" as it applies to sailing. I've done all the Internet searches I can think of, done the OED, the library at the San Francisco Maritime Historical Park, and consulted the many reference books I own. I've contacted the Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club, where the concept got its start according to their website, and the Corinthian Yacht Club in Tiburon, CA. Nothing has been of much help. The problem is as follows: In the nineteenth century when it was first adopted by Seawanhaka Club, the term already meant "amateur." But how it came to mean this in a flattering way is a puzzle. I can find no evidence that the ancient Corinthian games (called the Isthmian games) were any less professional than other similar games such as those in Olympia, where cash prizes were awarded in addition to wreaths. In ancient times, the Corinthians were known as licentious idlers. The best story I've heard, although I cannot confirm it, is that in the 1800s the working class guys, who sailed the boats professionally for non-sailing owners, called the wealthy clubhouse folks "Corinthians" as a term of derision. They were rich people drinking gin and tonics while the grunts did the hard work of sailing. Then, some rich folks decided they'd sail their own boats, and ironically adopted the "Corinthian" title. It's possible, but, as I say, unconfirmed. I wonder if anyone out there has a line on this. Otherwise, I am about to adopt Captain Ron's wise saying, "Nobody knows."
Tony Johnson


JRousmaniere
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May 5, 2011, 3:44 AM

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FROM JOHN ROUSMANIERE

The word “Corinthian” seems vague and harmless today, but it’s been controversial for 2,000 years. The first Corinthians were residents of the ancient Greek seaport of Corinth. A typical port town, Corinth was described by A. N. Wilson in his biography of St. Paul as “a place of proverbial wickedness, energy, riches, noise.” Paul’s chiding first letter to the Christian Corinthians in the New Testament portrays them as a little unruly but fully capable of improvement. Paul was not one to waste golden words like “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love” on hopeless reprobates.

The notion of the Corinthians as hearty fellows with hearts of gold carried on for centuries. In Henry IV Part 1, Shakespeare has young Prince Hal (then a rowdy but a future great king) describe himself as “a Corinthian, a lad of mettle, a good boy.”

A Corinthian, then, was a spunky, robust guy or gal. This nickname would have appealed to the young American sailors of the 1870s who were challenging the yachting establishment by sailing their own boats. Until then most yachtsmen had just one well-proven ability, which was to write big checks. When three 105-foot schooners crossed the New York Yacht Club’s starting line in the first-ever transatlantic race in 1866, two of the owners watched from spectator boats and the third, James Gordon Bennett Jr., sailed as a passenger, deferring to his professional skipper, the aptly named Samuel “Bully” Samuels. Among the nicknames for traditional yachtsmen was “the splurgers.”

The new alternate definition of “yachtsman” as an amateur (“Corinthian”) developed in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century and caught on in America. New Corinthian yacht clubs had fleets of small boats, and the rules required that they be raced only by Corinthian sailors who did all the work, had all the fun, and were paid not a nickel. The old establishment initially responded by slinging mud, and when the Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club was ridiculed for “aping English ideas,” the envy is as thick as the mud itself. By the 1920s, the average American yachtsman was a Corinthian “lad of mettle.” Good on them.





terrulian
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May 5, 2011, 2:52 PM

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The Internet is quite an amazing place. A seemingly innocent question brings forth an answer from one of my idols. I never fail to recommend The Annapolis Book of Seamanship to my students. I'm very humbled to have you on board, and grateful for your kind response. Great stuff.
The Shakespeare quote from about 1598 is the earliest one that I have been able to locate that implies anything like the contemporary meaning. Yet the transition from there to the contemporary use was anything but linear. From the OED:

1699 B. E. New Dict. Canting Crew, Corinthian, a very impudent,
harden'd, brazen-fac'd Fellow.
1706 J. Potter Archæologia Græca (ed. 2) II. iv. xii. 309 To act the
Corinthian, is...to commit fornication, according to Hesychius.
1785 F. Grose Classical Dict. Vulgar Tongue, Corinthians, frequenters
of brothels; also an impudent brazen faced fellow.
1819 T. Moore Tom Crib's Mem. 9 (Farmer) 'Twas diverting to see, as
one ogled around, How Corinthians and Commoners mixed on the ground.
1821 New Monthly Mag. 2 242 This more elegant appellation [Corinthian]
has superseded its predecessor Dandy, once so popular in every rank.
1825 M. M. Sherwood Lady of Manor (ed. 2) II. ix. 82 The brothers were
what, in modern times, we should call Dandies, or Corinthians.
1854 Thackeray J. Leech's Pictures in Q. Rev. Dec. (Farmer),
Corinthian, it appears, was the phrase applied to men of fashion and ton...they were the brilliant predecessors of the ‘swell’ of the present period.


The most common meaning seems to be that of a dandy or swell, a man of leisure. That's why I'm fond of the completely speculative story that has the title being ironically adopted by men who were in fact men of leisure and called Corinthians, but wished to get their hands dirty and learn the hard arts of the sailor.

As you say, by the late nineteenth century it seems to be the common term for an amateur in any sport, or perhaps for a sporting gentleman. The earliest documented date I have found for its use in sailing is the by the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club in Britain in 1872. If you know of any earlier confirmed use I'd love to hear of it. The Seawanhaka Yacht Club in New York was founded a year earlier on Corinthian principles and claims pride of place, but didn't add "Corinthian" to their name until 1881. These two seem the foundation of the tradition. Like you, I feel it makes sense that the meaning developed in Britain. I was hoping to find an Ode of Pindar or a passage from Plutarch that the upper class British lad would have learned in that period, which would serve as the smoking gun. But I've yet to find one. I continue to find the disconnect between the ancient and modern meanings amusing.
Thanks again for your gracious response.
-Tony Johnson
Tony Johnson


JRousmaniere
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May 7, 2011, 8:35 AM

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Thanks for your kind words, Tony. A new edition of ANNAPOLIS is in the works.

That's interesting stuff, and your suggestion that the term is used ironically has to be correct. The question we’re having so much fun trying to answer is how the word "Corinthian" (and not, say, "Philippian” or “Glaswegian”) became attached to amateur participants in a sport that was then dominated by the aristocracy – of blood in Britain and great wealth in the U.S. – who paid others to sail their boats. Many if not most Brits and Americans then were very familiar with St. Paul’s Corinthians and Shakespeare’s Prince Hal and, therefore, probably associated the word with contrarian behavior. This seems to be supported by what the great boating writer W.P. Stephens wrote about the word in his history of the Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club (and for that matter all American yachting) in the 19th century:

“The term ‘Corinthian,' which began to find its way into the vocabulary of yachting about this period, dates back to the idle rich of ancient Corinth [W.P.’s wrong; Paul’s concern is their stubborn divisiveness]. Shakespeare speaks of ‘a Corinthian, and a lad of mettle.’ At the outset of the 19th century it had a more comprehensive and less complimentary meaning than today, designating gentlemen of the ‘Tom and Jerry’ type, devoted mainly to pugilism, dog fighting, and similar diversions. [Tom and Jerry then were not cartoon characters but personifications of the riff raff.] That a still more sinister meaning was sometimes attached to it is indicated by a passage in Herman Melville’s novel REDBURN, published in 1849, in which he speaks of ‘notorious Corinthian haunts in the vicinity of the [Liverpool] docks, which in depravity are not to be matched by anything this side of the pit which is bottomless.’ [Hal spent a lot of time boozing with Falstaff in such haunts].”

As a former member of the Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club, I don’t recall seeing any depravity in its clubhouse. But like most sailors I do have memories of some pretty wild activity in boats – and only sometimes while racing.





terrulian
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May 7, 2011, 2:46 PM

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Thanks for the interesting thoughts and the reference to Stephens. According to Stephens, the term seems to have evolved in a more rebellious manner than I had thought. I guessed that the working sailors had called the owners “Corinthians” for their lives of pleasure and leisure, but it seems the word applied more to the lower classes. If this is correct, by using the term the owners would have been self-consciously identifying with the rowdy working class element, with, of course, a wink. Clearly, the yacht club crowd would not have been hanging out at the “notorious Corinthian haunts” described by Melville. Yet perhaps they had a fair respect for the toughness required for such a life, and wished to state that they were able to mix it up with the best of them—with the key difference that they could afford to do so without remuneration. Having the skills of a working professional but the pocketbook of a lord was a worthy boast indeed. And if we exchange “someone with a little disposable income” for “lord,” it’s not too far from the current meaning. Again, this is speculative, but starts to make a little sense.
Tony Johnson


JRousmaniere
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May 8, 2011, 7:23 AM

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Thanks, Tony. Although some of those early Corinthians were well off, they considered themselves pioneers (if not revolutionaries) because they handled their own boats, sailing as hard as we do today. I have stories of a few in my recently published history of the New York Yacht Club. For instance, there’s Edwin D. Morgan. In the late 1870s a professional sailor applied to Morgan for a job maintaining his racing sloop VINDEX. Morgan instructed him that only one person would be in charge: “If you wish me to engage you, it must be thoroughly understood that the boat is mine, bought for my pleasure, and whatever I choose to do with her, even up to wrecking her, is only my affair.” Those were confident words from a youthful Corinthian.

By the way, several copies of Stephens' SCYC history are available at ABEbooks.com. It's an authoritative and at the same time intimate view of the sport's early days by a sharp-eyed sailor-reporter who was on hand.

JR


terrulian
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May 8, 2011, 8:29 AM

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Thanks for the tip on the book; I'll look into ordering it, and thanks for the anecdote.
The more I think about it, the more mystery there is. For two thousand years the term retained its general meaning of someone with time on his hands, a sporting man or playboy with a slightly less than savory reputation. Then in a short time it was morphed into denoting the nobility of a person doing something to a high standard (or, as your anecdote suggests, to a low standard if he chooses) purely for the love of it. As late as the mid-1850s, Melville recognized it in more or less the traditional way, with an even more sordid connotation. Yet a mere decade and a half later, its acceptance as the term we know today was a fait accompli at the Seawanhaka club. The amateur or recreational element did not change; it was the degree of associated dignity that went through an evolution.
I suppose this is all rather obsessively pedantic of me. Yet, if I can't be sailing, I may as well be thinking about sailing.
Cheers,
Tony
Tony Johnson


a921
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May 9, 2011, 6:54 PM

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As crew-members of a few "Corinthian" America's Cup teams in the 80's, we quickly learned that it meant "work very long hours for very little pay!"

It was a great experience we just had very little $ to show for it.


terrulian
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May 10, 2011, 6:02 AM

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Are you suggesting that the "Corinthian" spirit has a dark side, the exploitation of expert sailors? The irony continues.
I'm hoping that the race in San Francisco will elevate the public's awareness of the sport, but I'm doubtful that salaries are ever going to be the equivalent of those in the NBA.

Does John or anyone know the answer to this: I'm assuming that the crew of nineteenth-century racing yachts did not have the proper social standing to become members of he New York Yacht Club, or for that matter, any yacht club. So what happened at the awards banquets? Was Charlie Barr admitted to the clubhouse for the trophy presentation after his America's Cup victories? Would he have made a token appearance but not have been permitted to dine with the members?
Tony Johnson


JRousmaniere
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May 10, 2011, 7:31 AM

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As in most activities, there was a caste system with pretty firm boundaries concerning dress and place. For instance, after Corinthianism became almost universal, a racing rule barred professionals from steering during races -- not because they were better sailors but because the sport was now for amateurs.

This didn't stop the pros from socializing informally with Corinthian sailors or speaking bluntly in moments of stress. When one big boat I know of was tacked without warning, the professional captain stomped aft to the cockpit and half-shouted, "Commodore! Leave us have no bloody secrets from the foredeck." The Commodore handed the helm to someone else and went forward to make peace with the one individual without whom the boat could not function.


terrulian
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May 10, 2011, 8:01 AM

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I love the “Leave us have no bloody secrets from the foredeck.” I think I will use that in my classes after an accidental tack or jibe.
So can we say with any certainty whether Charlie Barr and his ilk would have been permitted in the clubhouse? Would he have enjoyed drinks and dinner with the members, even after victory? I realize there remains a bit of exclusivity today, as probably there should, but this would certainly put it into perspective. A current Charlie Barr would be modern royalty, and the sailing world has changed along with the rest of society.
Of course, Barr, Lipton, Drake, and Columbus himself came from lowly beginnings, but I don’t wish to get too far off track. This is all in the interest of comprehending the word “Corinthian,” and the evolution of the separation between “professional” and “amateur.”
Tony Johnson


JRousmaniere
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May 10, 2011, 8:18 AM

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It's my impression that professionals were rarely members or guests of yacht clubs whose members included the people the pros worked for.


The Publisher
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May 11, 2011, 7:14 AM

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From Angelo Lavranos:
Just to add a bit to the origin of the word "Corinthian" in yachting. I think the key idea is not the robustness of the "Guys & Gals" but that they were amateurs.

Corinth, the city-state in Ancient Greece, was a leading maritime power (as was Athens). The triremes were sponsored by private individuals or groups of individuals, and manned by them without pay. The whole navy enterprise was "amateur", although to be sure there had to be wealthy individuals involved.

Triremes were a very sophisticated bit of kit, and were "drysailed" (stored in sheds). Their planks were interlocked with key shaped mortices, and being such long, thin, light structures had to be post tensioned with rope cables from end to end. They could do 16 knots. People gained great honour & status by funding and campaigning these ships.


From Will Crump:
For the origins of the word "Corinthian" in regards to sports, you should point your research to the Corinthian Football Club.

For brevity's sake the wikepedia entry is below, but there are loads of books on the subject.
http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corinthian_F.C.

Sailing may be the only sport continuing to use the term, but sailing was likely not the sport to attach the phrase "Corinthian" to amateur status or virtues of self-policing and honor.





terrulian
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May 11, 2011, 11:35 AM

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Thank both of your for your input, I really appreciate it.

In regard to Mr. Lavranos' point about Corinth: Great stuff. Corinth did indeed have a great reputation for its Navy, although it was not as storied as the Athenian one. In ancient Athens and Corinth, all military service was voluntary as they had no professional army or navy. You even had to buy your own sword and shield, and if you were rich, your own horse. Rich people underwrote the building of ships.
But I don't think our term was transmitted directly to the nineteenth century by way of someone's choosing Corinth as a great role model. Rather, we see its earlier use in Shakespeare, who must have written it knowing it would be understood as intended. The gap between the ancient writers' view of Corinth and Shakespeare's is impossible to fill, as far as I know. But one thing we can say is that the ancient view of Corinthians as party folks (somewhat recast by John's points, above in regard to the letters of Paul) remained consistent until the nineteenth century. Then, in a short time, as I mentioned above, it changed into something which was admirable, which seems a new twist.

In regard to Mr. Crump's point about English football: I looked into this earlier, and could find no record of any British club that used the term prior to its use in sailing. If you have any knowledge of one before 1871, I'd be most obliged if you'd pass it along.
Tony Johnson


terrulian
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May 13, 2011, 2:30 PM

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OK, here's another shot at this. I have gone through the contexts of the use of this term which are referenced in the OED from Shakespeare on. (There is a gap in its use from ancient times to Shakespeare.) There are two noteworthy points to be made. 1) ALL of them have something to do with being the swell, the playboy, the dandy. 2) NONE of them makes any direct or indirect reference to the distinction between professional and amateur.

The most instructive of these is from William Makepeace Thackeray in 1854, only 17 years before the founding of the Seawanhaka Yacht Club. It reads, in part: "The Corinthians were in the habit of drinking a great deal too much in Tom Cribb's parlor: they used to go and see "life" in the gin-shops...they perpetrated a vast deal of boxing...they attended cock-fights, and were enlightened patrons of dogs and destroyers of rats. Besides these sports, the delassemens of gentlemen mixing with the people, our patricians, of course, occasionally enjoyed the society of their own class." [delassemens is anglicized French and means "recreations."] In other words, Corinthians were a segment of the upper classes that went slumming with the common folk, not always with perfect civility. They were like the swells in New York City in the 'twenties who went uptown to the Cotton Club to see Duke Ellington.

Another telling passage is the one from Shakespeare. In Henry IV, Pt. 1, Act 2, Scene 4, Prince Henry tells us that “They take it already upon their salvation that though I be but Prince of Wales, yet I am the king of courtesy, and tell me flatly am no proud jack, like Falstaff, but a Corinthian, a lad of mettle, a good boy—by the Lord, so they call me…I can drink with any tinker in his language.” In this passage, Henry asserts that although he is royal, he is no braggart or snob, but can drink and converse with the common man. The educated gentleman of the time that the Corinthian tradition began in yachting would have known his Shakespeare, and this was a very popular play.

I now think that this sense of being able to mingle with commoners was the original meaning of the word when it was adopted by the first Corinthian sailors. The owners would not keep aloof from the men on the boats, but would be among them as equals. They would be joined by their friends, Corinthians all. The sense we now have of the amateur sailor developed when the earliest Corinthian clubs started setting up rules for non-professional racing, and this is now the primary meaning of the word.

It may be objected that the websites of the clubs that use Corinthian in their name trace the word back to the ancient city. But inquiries on this point have not been answered by the clubs in question. What I find amiss with this is that in 1871, the word was understood and commonly used in the sense Thackeray describes. To, at that time, have picked "Corinthian" because of some undocumented idea that Corinth's games were less professional than those in Olympia, while ignoring its popular contemporary meaning, seems unlikely. Though it may be cheeky to say so, if clubs now trace the term back to Corinth, it is because the folks writing the club histories were not around in 1871, but are writing at a time when the 16th-19th century usage has fallen by the wayside. It seemed reasonable to these modern writers to attribute it to the ancient city, though in fact it had a less noble reputation in antiquity than one might have hoped, and little evidence of amateurism. Today, no one uses the word in the sense that Thackeray or Shakespeare did, and it is limited to the world of amateur sport.

I’d be delighted if any of these clubs possessed an actual account by one of the founders on this point, and would be most happy to stand corrected. But if true, this version of the story is no less admirable than the one commonly accepted, as the patricians come down off the mountain to mix it up with the common Joes.
Tony Johnson




JRousmaniere
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May 16, 2011, 6:34 AM

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Thanks for that. I'd add only that the words "contrarian" and "anti-Establishment" seem to apply to all the historic Corinthians whom we've considered, and who were familiar to educated people in the late 19th century. As usual, these contrarians soon became the Establishment.

JR


terrulian
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May 16, 2011, 7:44 AM

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Absolutely. Just like Prince Henry, the first Corinthian sailors were rebelliously stepping outside of what they saw as the confining restrictions of class. They weren't doing so out of noblesse oblige, but because that was where the fun was. Today we would consider it obvious that there is more excitement out on the water than in the clubhouse, but in 1871 when sailing was viewed as an activity for the working class, it was a revolutionary concept.
Tony Johnson


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