Many versions of the popular sea shanty "Drunken Sailor" includes the following verse:

What shall we do with a drunken sailor,

Put him in bed with the captain's daughter.

Sources including Wikipedia claim that this is a reference to getting whipped with the cat o' nine tails, but Wikipedia itself states that this "failed verification" and I was unable to dredge up a reliable historical source on this on Google Scholar, which mostly returns a lot of hits about Pushkin's novel.

For comparison, getting whipped while bent over a cannon is apparently known as "kissing the gunner's daughter" (although there's a similar dearth of sources here), while "letting the cat out of the bag" apparently has nothing to do with corporal punishment.

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    There are numerous conflicting stories about these idioms. One other interesting one is that "the captain's daughter" refers to the ship's resident prostitute. Commented Jan 18, 2021 at 3:05
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    Unfortunately, my main source was an episode of the British show "Call the Midwife". Commented Jan 18, 2021 at 3:50
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    Would this q not be better on English SE, because it's probably about figurative interpretation? (Not my DV.) Commented Jan 18, 2021 at 8:55
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    Seems like a reasonable question. There was a question about cat 'o nine tails allowed a while back. Upvoted because I disagree with the downvote.... Commented Jan 18, 2021 at 9:40
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    @lambshaanxy: ELU does etymology as well as usage.
    – jwodder
    Commented Jan 18, 2021 at 20:19

2 Answers 2


According to the 1949 book It's an Old Cape Cod Custom :

One shanty had a line suggestive of the old Cape Cod custom of bundling— “ I wish I was in bed with the captain's daughter . ”

Here, the author says the meaning is literal, bundling, meaning sleeping in bed with the captain's daughter without having sex. Nothing about a whip is mentioned.

This 1949 book predates any documentation of the "Put him in bed with the captain's daughter" line in the Drunken Sailor song.

The 1964 edition of the book Songs of American Sailormen includes the Drunken Sailor song but gives no indication of any of its lyrics mentioning the captain's daughter and instead on the second page of chapter 1 echoes the 1949 book in giving “I wish I was in bed with the captain's daughter” a literal meaning. (See also the original 1924 edition Roll and Go: Songs of American Sailormen)

  • Interesting -- so what is "bundling"? Commented Jan 24, 2021 at 22:36
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    @lambshaanxy this is a nice article on bundling: historicipswich.org/2018/01/05/bundling “To sleep on the same bed without undressing; applied to the custom of a man and woman, especially lovers, thus sleeping.”
    – DavePhD
    Commented Jan 24, 2021 at 22:54
  • Roland Emmerich film The Patriot (200) has a scene depicting bundling: a woman (Mary Jo Deschanel) sews Gabriel (Heath Ledger), the suitor of her daughter Anne (Lisa Brenner), into a burlap sack so the two young people can sleep next to each other in a state of enforced chastity. The mother reassures her husband (Joey D. Vieira) “Don’t worry, I sew better than my mother.” An alternative to the bundling bag was a bundling board, a sort of wooden fence that could be fixed down the middle of the bed, but that seems much less effective to me. Commented Jan 28, 2021 at 4:56

My answer is almost the same as Dave's but I find that the intended meaning is erotic.

... I recall ... an old halliard shanty whose chorus forthrightly announces: "I was in bed with the captain's daughter.” As Captain Robinson remarks: “The words of the shanties were by no means strictly censored on moral or any other grounds, and the officers cared little enough what the men sang, provided it had the right effect in inspiring them to work harder."

Lincoln Colcord, introduction to Joanna C. Colcord, Roll and go, songs of American sailormen (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1924). Quotation from John Robinson, "Songs of the Chanty-Man: III", The Bellman, July 28, 1917, p.100.

This verse is therefore not implying a form of corporal punishment, but is meant to be a comic surprise as it is a very different way to wake up a sailor.


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