Wednesday March 22, 2006

Bobby Shaftoe

Neal Stephenson's novel Cryptonomicon takes place in both the present and during the Second World War.  One of the characters in the earlier sections is Bobby Shaftoe.  He's tough, relentless, violent, and possibly a little bit crazy—a Marine, in other words.  It turns out, to my surprise, that he's also a reference to a nursery rhyme.

"Bobby Shaftoe" was a traditional English folk song that was include in at least some versions of Mother GooseOne version goes like this:

Bobby Shaftoe's gone to sea,
With silver buckles on his knee:
He'll come back and marry me,
Pretty Bobby Shaftoe!
Bobby Shaftoe's fat and fair,
Combing down his yellow hair;
He's my love for evermore,
Pretty Bobby Shaftoe.

If you've read Cryptonomicon, you'll probably have noticed that the story in the song is paralleled by the story of the character in the book—he goes to sea, planning to return to marry his sweetheart, Glory—so presumably Stephenson was aware of the song.  I wonder if he expected the name to be familiar to his readers, or if he was being intentionally obscure.  You can read more about the song and the character on (spoilers!) this page in the Quicksilver Metaweb.

For those of you who saw the "Linguistics in SF" tag on this post and are still waiting for linguistics content, here's the payoff.  In John B. Carroll's introduction to Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, he writes the following in a passage about Whorf's non-academic interests:

He lent his artistic talents to numerous enterprises, stage designing being the foremost of these.  He also wrote and directed plays for church groups and charitable organizations, and he wrote the libretto for Bobby Shaftoe, a musical comedy which was once given a performance in Boston.  (p. 2)

It seems that Bobby Shaftoe, like Elvis, is everywhere.  It feels weird to keep encountering his name in such seemingly unrelated circumstances—it's the kind of spooky connection that would fit right into Stephenson's novels.  Here's another one: this site, which provides an alternate version of the song, mentions that "in performance the hero's name is invariably pronounced 'Shafty'", so this is yet another example of oe pronounced as [i].

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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I prefer the Mad Magazine version, showing a very pregnant, teary-eyed young woman standing on a dock waving a handkerchief at a departing ship:

Bobby Shaftoe's gone to sea,
Silver buckles on his knee.
He'll come back and marry me,
My lawyer says so.

Posted by: johnshade at Mar 22, 2006 9:06:47 AM

Oddly, Neal Stephenson and I (who of course are connected as writers in many ways but not personally -- my wife and I once had dinner with him) imdependently chose for no seeming good reason to name a character Bobby Shaftoe in a long book of mystery/history. Mine is in the Aegypt series, beginning in Love & Sleep and continuing in Daemonomania. The difference being that my Bobby Shaftoe is female. MAke of it what you will.

Posted by: at Nov 5, 2006 4:56:22 AM

(For those of you keeping track, that last comment was apparently from John Crowley, whose novel Little, Big has been sitting on my to-read stack for literally seven years. I'm going to take this as a sign I should bump it to the top of the stack and finally read it.)

Posted by: The Tensor at Nov 5, 2006 7:37:09 AM

I'd have described it as a nursery rhyme rather than a folk song, but maybe that's just splitting hairs. Over here (the UK) I'd expect everyone to recognise the name if not the details of his career. For the record, I've never heard it pronounced "shafty."

Posted by: The Cosh at Apr 11, 2007 5:13:05 AM