Word Confusion: Chanty versus Shanty

Posted October 27, 2016 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

I ran across “shanty” (meaning a song sung by sailors), and I “knew” it was wrong. It should be “chanty”! So of course I got up on my high horse and looked it up…ahem, to prove it. Nope, it’s an alternative spelling that is dependent upon context.

The chanty (or chantey) has a French origin from the base verb chanter, meaning to sing while shanty arose from men who worked lumber, the railroad, or the ports and lived in shanties in America. And sang to make the work go easier.

If you’re flexible, you can use either. If you want to reinforce your story, consider using chanty for songs sung by sailors and shanty for songs sung by land-based workers in America.

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end.

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Chanty Shanty
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com; Dictionary.com: shanty

A flutist provides a rhythm for the sailors to turn the capstan

Image courtesy of Genius

A sea chanty piped by a flutist works well.

A shanty town near the sea, mixed with more standard homes.

“Dominica Shanty Town by the Sea” by martinvarsavsky via Flickr: Dominica Shanty Town [CC BY 2.0] and Wikimedia Commons

Part of Grammar:
Noun 1
Plural: chanties, chanteys

Alternate spelling: chantey, shanty, or sea chantey

Adjective 2; Noun 1, 2
Verb, intransitive 2

Plural for the noun or third person present verb: shanties
Past tense or past participle: shantied
Present participle: shantying

Alternate spelling (only for 1): chantey, sea chantey

A song with alternating solo and chorus, of a kind originally sung by sailors while performing physical labor together Adjective:
Of, relating to, or constituting a shanty or shanties

Of a low economic or social class, especially when living in a shanty

A sailors’ song, especially one sung in rhythm to work 1

A crudely built hut, cabin, lean-to, hovel, or house 2

[Australia; New Zealand] A public house, especially an unlicensed one

[Canada] A log bunkhouse at a lumber camp

  • A lumber camp

Verb, intransitive:
To inhabit a shanty

It was a prized chanteyman who could surprise a laugh from the crew and thereby make the job seem easier or inspire the men to work harder (The Ancient Mariners).

A sea chanty helped coordinate the efforts of a team of sailors to do a single task.

A chanty included what sailors knew about their homes, families, past experiences, their ship and crew, where they’d been, and what they’d rather be doing.

The structure of a chanty changed depending on how difficult or continuous the task.

Some chanties include “John Kanaka”, “Blood Red Roses”, “Blow the Man Down”, “Haul Away Joe”, and “The Rio Grande”.

He woke to the sound of sailors singing a chanty as they hauled in the sails.

There was a shanty quarter outside the town walls.

You are not to play with that girl! She’s one of those shanty people.

There’s a shanty town outside Washington where we can find a bed.

You expect me to live in that shanty?

Jean and I stayed in that shanty right there.

Verb, intransitive:
We’re shantying for the weekend in Door County.

Ned and I had to shanty with five other guys on our hunting trip.

Noun: chanteyman Adjective: shantylike
Noun: shantyman, shantytown
History of the Word:
1 Mid-19th century and probably from the French chantez! meaning sing!, an imperative plural of chanter. 2 1810-20 from either the Canadian French chantier meaning lumberjack’s cabin, logging camp, lumber camp, hut or the French yard, depot, gantry, or stand for barrels and from the Latin cant (h)ērius meaning rafter or prop, literally, a horse in poor condition, a nag which is from the Greek kanthélios meaning pack ass.

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves? Also, please note that I try to be as accurate as I can, but mistakes happen or I miss something. Email me if you find errors, so I can fix them…and we’ll all benefit!

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Howard Hornstein’s Favorite Sea Songs of the Ancient Mariners Chanteymen had a fascinating bit on the differences between all the alternate spellings based on their origins.

The San Francisco Maritime National Park Association has a lesson plans page which discusses what types of chanties were used for what tasks. It makes for an interesting read.

Pinterest Photo Credits:

Shanty on the Cypress Coast” by dimitrisvetsikas1969 and “Woman Singing and Playing Guitar” by walbergcarvalho are under the CC0 Public Domain license, via Pixabay.