Funnin’ the lubbers.
Dear Word Detective: I was reading some Patrick O’Brian to the cats over the holiday (they like stories with fish), and something caught my eye: “Shiver” being used to describe something being forcibly disintegrated by being repeatedly struck (the Hollywood usage – not O’Brian – of course being “shiver me timbers”). Is this an older usage of the word we now use to characterize our reaction to the cold? Or two different meanings? — Chris Schultz.
It must be nice to have cats you can read to. The best we can muster is one cat, Gus, who occasionally watches television. But not, as one might expect, Animal Planet. No, Gus only seems to like America’s Funniest Videos. Call me oversensitive, but I find it slightly disturbing to harbor a pet who enjoys watching human beings falling down. I’m afraid this may explain all the cat toys I find on the stairs.
It’s good to know that Patrick O’Brian (whose books I pledge to read someday) doesn’t deploy a chestnut as stale as “shiver me timbers” in his nautical novels. I can’t prove it, but I’d be willing to bet that the phrase is familiar today primarily because of Walt Disney’s 1950 film of “Treasure Island.” After all, the gifted British actor Robert Newton (Long John Silver in the film) pretty much invented the elongated “Arrgh” that constitutes a pirate impersonation these days.
But “shiver me timbers” actually dates back to at least the mid-19th century, and, interestingly, was never meant to be taken seriously. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the phrase as “a mock oath attributed in comic fiction to sailors” (“I won’t thrash you Tom. Shiver my timbers if I do,” 1835).
“Shiver” in this sense, defined by the OED as “to break or split into small fragments or splinters,” is a completely different word from the sort of “shiver” you feel when you realize you forgot to pay your heating bill. This “break” sense of “shiver” derives from “shiver” as a noun meaning “fragment” or “splinter,” based in turn on the Middle Low German word “schever,” meaning “splinter.” Both the noun and verb forms of this “shiver” first appeared in English in the early 13th century. The “timbers” in “shiver me timbers,” incidentally, probably refers to the wooden framework of a sailing ship’s hull, although “timbers” is also very old slang for the legs.
The origin of the other “shiver,” meaning “to shake or tremble with cold or fear,” and the noun “shiver” derived from it, is uncertain, but it is thought to be a modified form of the Middle English “chivere,” which apparently meant roughly “to chatter the teeth,” and was related to the Old English “ceafl,” meaning “jaw.”