Patrick O'Brian wrote the Aubrey/Maturin seafaring novels during the late 20th Century, but the novels read as if they were written during the early 1800s (at least as far as I can tell, which isn't all that far).

O'Brian sometimes uses the phrase "old fashioned" in a way that apparently means something like "irked", "angry", or "disconsolate", depending on the situation. Here are two examples from his novels:

From Post Captain (second in the series):

“...and John Lakey, maintop. Do you remember him? You sewed him up very near, the first time you ever sailed with us and we had a brush with an Algerine. He swears you saved his privates, sir, and is most uncommon grateful: would feel proper old fashioned without ‘em, he says.”

From Desolation Island (fifth in the series):

“I dare say," said Cobb. "But he’s only a blue finner, a nasty, spiteful thing. You plant a harpoon in his side, and what does he do? He rushes on you like a thunder-clap and beats the boat to splinters and then runs out a thousand fathom of line. You don’t want to take notice of him. Now by your leave, sir, I must go aloft. There’s Moses Harvey looking down quite old-fashioned, for to be relieved.”

The first quotation discusses a man who was wounded in the genitals during a battle and nearly lost them, but for the swift and capable action of the ship's surgeon. Presumably, when he says he would "feel proper old fashioned without 'em" he must mean something like disconsolate. The second quotation refers to Moses Harvey who is waiting to be relieved and is looking down disdainfully on Cobb, who should have already relieved him.

I'm curious if this is how "old fashioned" was really used in England, or at least among British sailors, in the early 1800s, or if O'Brian is perhaps taking some literary license and coining a phrase that sounds right for the ambiance he's trying to create.

  • Seems like, for the first one, old-fashioned could refer to having old-fashioned values, which one might be inclined to have, sans those privates (dictionary defintion: Attached to or favoring methods, ideas, or customs of an earlier time: old-fashioned parents). I'm stumped on #2 – unless it means he's drunk?
    – J.R.
    Sep 6, 2012 at 22:14
  • We've had questions before about Patrick O'Brian's highly-suspect usages. I think analysing his particular choice of "pseudo-authentic archaisms" is essentially Off Topic or Too Localised. Sep 6, 2012 at 22:21
  • ...Another example in that same passage is "blue finner". There's a blue whale, and a fin[back] whale, but there's no such thing as a blue finner whale. Sep 6, 2012 at 22:28
  • @FumbleFingers Another character exclaims "But it was a hundred feet long." So, unless a fin whale is as big as a blue whale, he must have meant a blue whale.
    – eipi10
    Sep 6, 2012 at 22:39
  • @eipi10: Wikipedia tells me a finback can be as much as 89 feet long, and a blue whale can be up to 98 feet. Not that much difference anyway, and I suppose we can always allow O'Brian artistic licence so his character just happens to be describing a bigger one than Wikipedia knows about (or maybe the character was just embellishing things, as O'Brian himself tends to do! :) Sep 6, 2012 at 22:52

1 Answer 1


The second example is not so much 'disdainful' as 'disapproving', and is still in use in Britain (e.g. here). However, the OED's earliest citation is 1911, and that doubtful, so O'Brien is apparently using twentieth-century language rather than nineteenth. But bear in mind that there is very little evidence for how seamen spoke in those days, so it may easily be accurate; just not demonstrably so.

  • It's interesting how when you cast it as "disapproving", which seems correct, this isn't actually all that different from the normal, modern sense of the word "old-fashioned", given that that word often connotes strict adherence to old-fashioned values and therefore disapproval of violating such values. For instance, if I were to say "My boss is very old-fashioned about the dress code", I think that implies that I face strong disapproval if I don't dress up.
    – alcas
    Sep 7, 2012 at 4:27
  • I'm sure I've heard 'an old-fashioned look' during my lifetime. Sep 7, 2012 at 6:39
  • 1
    @BarrieEngland: I'm sure I've received an old-fashioned look or two in my lifetime. Sep 7, 2012 at 10:11
  • 1
    The first example seems to fit perfectly with the figurative sense "obsolete" or "no longer useful". I suppose John Lakey could indeed feel useless or obsolete without his testicles.
    – MetaEd
    Sep 9, 2012 at 3:44

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