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shameless pleading

Graveyard / Dog / Lobster Shift

The wee small hours of Where am I?

Dear Word Detective:  Please give me a definition of the term  “dog shift.”  It refers to working hours.  I have searched with no luck. — Pam.

Dear Word Detective: When I first started working at newspapers, in the mid-70s, the midnight to 8 am shift was called, not the “graveyard shift,” but the “lobster shift” or “lobster trick.” It was suggested that the name started because many of the staff would go drinking before work and come in “boiled,” but that seems like a stretch. — William Fisher.

This sudden flurry of questions having to do with work shifts is interesting.  Is there something I should know about going on with the economy?  Speaking of the terminology of employment (or the lack thereof), I heard an interview last week on NPR with someone who had been recently laid off, who noted that the equivalent to “laid off” in Britain is “made redundant,” a term which the interviewee said would make him feel less than “personally unique.”  (I did mention this was NPR, didn’t I?)   I’d actually go a bit further and say that “made redundant” has always reminded me of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”  Just don’t fall asleep and you’ll be OK.

Sleeping normal hours is out of the question, of course, if you work a “graveyard,” “lobster” or “dog” shift, all three of which are slang terms for a late night shift, usually from  midnight to 8 a.m.  I’ve never worked a graveyard shift, but I did, for several years, work a “swing” (evening) shift, so-called because such shifts often overlap both the day and night shifts and mark a metaphorical pivot point between the two.

I had never heard the term “dog shift” before, and it doesn’t seem to be very common, although it does turn up fairly frequently in the context of police work.  I was puzzled as to its derivation until I realized that it is almost certainly a modified form of “dog watch.”  This was originally (in the 18th century) a nautical term for a short period of duty “on watch” (two hours instead of the standard four).  Such “dog watches” were, however, very unpopular because they  made the sailor miss his normal dinner time.  The “dog” in “dog watch” is yet another case, one of many, of man’s best friend being used as a symbol of misfortune (e.g., “a dog’s life,” one of misery).   “Dog watch” has, since the early 20th century, been used to mean the late night shift, especially in newspaper offices (“The building shakes with the rumble of the presses; the ‘dog watch,’ detailed to duty in the event of news demanding an extra, opens its game of poker,” 1901).

“Graveyard shift,” a term that dates to the early 20th century, comes from the presumed quiet of the workplace at that hour, although many are just as noisy then as at noon.  The origin of “lobster shift” (originally “lobster trick,” “trick” being an old nautical term for duty at the helm) has been disputed almost since it first appeared in the 1940s.  The story about newspapermen arriving for their shift as florid as lobsters is certainly possible, as is the less plausible explanation that there was so little to do on the night shift that the staff dined out on   lobster and champagne in the wee hours.  But the truth, sad to say, is that “lobster” was, beginning in the 19th century, popular slang in New York City for “a fool or dupe,” probably because lobsters were considered very stupid creatures.  So “lobster shift” probably reflects the sentiment that only a fool (or an incompetent worker) would wind up working the midnight shift.

11 comments to Graveyard / Dog / Lobster Shift

  • Yve

    Hi The term graveyard shift dates from the night after a corpse was buried. A bell was attached to the corpse and someone sat up all night, in case the bell rang, to dig up the poor unfortunate. We also get the term ‘dead ringer’ from the same source. The term Wake, when a party was held around the body laid out in the coffin, was to give the ‘corpse’ time to awake before burial.

  • Nancy

    Not according to the great word detective himself who said some time ago regarding wake:

    “The primary modern senses of “wake” all center on that “become or stay alert” meaning. The “wake,” or vigil over a body held between death and burial in many religions, harks back to the antiquated “watch or guard” sense. No one, contrary to what you might read on the internet, ever expected the object of such a “wake” to actually “wake up”.”

    And even longer since he posted “dead ringer”:

    “The “ringer” in “dead ringer” comes from the phrase “ring the changes,” which literally means to ring all the bells in a bell-tower in varying sequences, and metaphorically means to repeat something in a variety of ways. As slang, “ring the changes” means to substitute a bad or false thing for a good thing, and it’s that “phony” meaning that gave us “dead ringer.”

    First found in about 1890, “ringer” was originally horse-racing slang for a horse with a proven track record that was surreptitiously substituted for a less qualified, untested horse. “Ringer” is now used as slang for anything that has been tampered with or unfairly altered. The “dead” in “dead ringer” is simply an intensifier, meaning “absolutely,” and since a “ringer” must resemble the thing it replaces, “dead ringer” has come to mean something indistinguishable from another thing or person.”

  • Terry Fitz

    I don’t know if the late author Patrick O’Brian could be considered an authority on language, but he should probably be considered an authority on British naval life circa 1800. In just about all of his books, he refers to the Marines aboard Naval vessels as “lobsters” – apparently in reference to their red coats. Is it possible that the “lobster trick” is related to that? Also – and this is just an O’Brian joke pure and simple – one of his characters is asked why the “dog-watch” is thus named. The character explains, “Because it is cur-tailed.”

  • George Reuther

    Contrarily, during the mid 80′s while working in the Hotel industry in Boston. Worked many shifts of 12-noon to 8pm which at the time was referred to as “The Dog Shift”. Great for someone in their early 20′s; had the good fortune of staying out late and waking up late without missing work.

  • [...] has had other, more mysterious names – dog watch, lobster trick, lobster shift. According to The Word Detective, “dog watch” dates back to the eighteenth-century, when it was used by sailors for the [...]

  • Ernest Adams

    I don’t agree about dog watches being unpopular with the sailors because they made the sailors miss their dinner. Thanks (again) to Patrick O’Brian, I know that dinner for the foremast hands was served at noon. The two dog watches are from 4 PM to 6 PM and from 6 PM to 8 PM.

  • Graveyard shift also comes from the propensity ill people have of dying in the earliest hours of the morning.

  • Ned Rodriguez

    When I worked in law enforcement, our dog watch was a shift beginning at 7 in the evening and ending at 3 in the morning.

  • Jim Nelson

    In the pulp and paper industry the term dog shift is fairly common, paticularly in the Southern United States. The shift is usually 11 PM to 7 AM. I remember it being described as the shift where everyone but the dogs were sleeping.

  • FYI, the late late shift (graveyard to most of us) is called the “hoot shift” by longshore workers, at least on the West Coast.

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