Harry Frees

Naval slang is a much passed-over subject in FWW sociolinguistics. Most wartime naval slang in English was in place before 1914, and only a small proportion of those who volunteered or were conscripted in Britain went into the Royal Navy or the Merchant Navy, which diminished the sources of slang compared to the army. Fraser and Gibbons missed one of our favourite naval slang expressions, ‘The Accident’, for tinned meat, noted in the Midlothian Advertiser 30 April 1915, but other newspaper articles on navy slang did note ‘Harry Frees’.


Partridge noted how this phrase developed from ‘to drink at Harry Freeman’s quay’, meaning to drink at someone else’s expense, to ‘it’s Harry Freeman’s’ for anything that turned out to be free. He recorded that the ‘Freeman’s’ disappeared during the First World War, and began to be attached to other expressions, which would be extended with the suffix –ers. Thus ‘breakfast’ became ‘Harry brekkers’, for no apparent reason other than the enjoyable daftness of the sound. According to Partridge, by 1918 the expression ‘Harry flatters’ was in use for ‘flat out from exhaustion’. The form enjoyed several periods of revival during the 20thcentury, in the late 1950s with ‘harry champers’ (champagne), ‘harry bangers’ (sausages), and the famous ‘Harry pinkers’ (pink gin, a navy favourite), which Green’s Dictionary of Slang has dating from 1966. The most outrageous of these has to be ‘Harry preggers’, but that’s a digression.


Much of the slang in an article syndicated in June 1918 is to do with food, mostly straightforward, but with one puzzle – blancmange as ‘chicken food’, which Partridge records as from the 19thcentury. At a time when many people must be disappointed that rummages in the backs of food cupboards have not revealed packets of instant blancmange – or sadder still, Angel Delight (effectively sugar-flavoured sugar with cornflour, milk-powder and gelatine) – can anyone suggest a connection between chicken-food and blancmange?




One thought on “Harry Frees”

  1. My late father in law (a marine at d-day and his friend (a merchant seaman on WWII convoys) always referred to spirit drinks without anything in them as Harry Neaters. Could this mean free from anything else e,g, cola, lemonade, ice, etc.


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