2

Like "Rule, Britannia!", I like the "British Grenadier March".

I never understood however this phrase in the lyrics, it is in every verse, here Verse 1 for example:

Some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules
Of Hector and Lysander, and such great names as these.
But of all the world's great heroes, there’s none that can compare.
With a tow, row, row, row, row, row, to the British Grenadiers

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_British_Grenadiers

What does this mean? Is it a phonetic spelling the sound when swinging a grenade (they were really heavy at those) times) towards the enemy? I really have no clue.

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    It looks to me and I think it so that he who wrote just did not know what words to say when he got near the end so he filled the rest with a row row row. – Nigel J Oct 13 '17 at 22:00
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    To make it fun to sing? It's a song. Does it have to be another reason? Or any reason? – AmE speaker Oct 13 '17 at 22:14
  • Both your comments make sense however I thought the quoted phrase has a deeper meaning. – Bruder Lustig Oct 14 '17 at 0:22
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    youtube.com/watch?v=Sr6w_wU3RzQ – Hot Licks Oct 14 '17 at 2:35
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    Lots of songs of that period had a nonsense refrain - "hey nonny nonny"; "rally rally rally rally rye-o" and the like. – Kate Bunting Oct 14 '17 at 8:17
4

Saumya Malhotra, The Revolutionary's Playlist: A Lyrical Journey Through History (2017) asserts that the "tow, row, row, row, row, row" is an imitation of the sound of the drums accompanying the grenadiers on a march:

The introductory verse alludes to the great Heroes of Ancient Greece, touting the Grenadiers as past compare in their grandeur and bravery. It also introduces the repeated onomatopoeic refrain, 'With a tow, row, row, row, row, row, to the British grenadiers', which mimics the rhythm and beat of the drums in play. Further it suggests the aural imagery of soldiers plodding on, toiling away.

Rudyard Kipling, "The Drums of the Fore and Aft" (1888), a tale of two drummer boys with the British army in Afghanistan, hyphenates the initial tow-row (and in some slightly later editions the entire tow-row-row-row-row-row sequence) of the refrain:

With a tow-row, row, row, row, row,

To the British Grenadier.

which to me suggests a drum beat rather than, say, a boat being towed and rowed on a canal.

Calliope: Or, The Musical Miscellany (1788) lists five verses of "British Grenadiers," four of which have the refrain "With a tow, row, row, row, row."

Eric Partridge & Jacqueline Simpson, The Routledge Dictionary of Historical Slang (1973) includes entries for tow-row as a noun and as an adjective:

tow-row [n. 1.] A grenadier: military: ca 1780–1860. Ex 'With a tow-row, row-row, row-row, for the British Grenadiers'. cf. the adj. 2. A noise: dial. > (low) coll: from ca 1870. Reduplicated row, a disturbance. 3. As tow-row! it meant, among London crossing-sweepers of ca. 1840–80, 'Be careful, a policeman is coming!' Mayhew, Paved with Gold, 1858.

tow-row adj. Drunk (?and disorderly): C.18. Steele, 1709. On ROW, disturbance.

But as Partridge & Simpson note, these slang meanings followed, rather than preceded, the "British Grenadiers" march. Malhotra's suggestion that the sounds are onomatopoeic for the sound of military drums strikes me as reasonable. Ultimately, tow-row row-row row-row seems as successfully imitative of a marching band as ta-ra-ra boom-de-ay (another popular lyric) does.

  • 1
    So in other words it's opinion based. – AmE speaker Oct 14 '17 at 14:49

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