- "I should like to see him try it; I'd give him such a pair of black eyes that he wouldn't dare to show his face in the admiral's cabin again for a long while, let alone down in the orlop there, where he lives, and hereabouts on the upper decks where he sneaks so much. Damn the devil, Flask; so you suppose I'm afraid of the devil? Who's afraid of him, except the old governor who daresn't catch him and put him in double-darbies, as he deserves, but lets him go about kidnapping people; aye, and signed a bond with him, that all the people the devil kidnapped, he'd roast for him? There's a governor!"
- (Stubb and Flask Kill a Right Whale; and Then Have a Talk Over Him, Moby Dick, Chapter 73).
Zealous bookworms are well acquainted with many of the plentiful and fantastic maritime fables. From those about Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, and Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea to the modern Patrick O'Brien sea adventures. The best booklovers know that one of the central characters in each of these books is the ship itself--her design, rigging, deck, mast, bulwark, spars, and rudders. Whether the ship is a whaling boat or a skiff slipping through the Gulf Stream or a fearless American vessel rounding the Horn or marooned in the horse latitudes, that craft is an essential part of the narrative. Yet there is an additional personality in these sea stories, hardly ever given a voice to but forever, and for all time at hand: Davy Jones. Davy and his locker are regular escorts of all those who sail the bounding main leaving in his wake a graveyard of sailors and ships that sleep for eternity in the beds of the earth's vast oceans.
No one's really sure who Davy Jones was but through tall tales and sea shanties the name has become personified as the bottom of the sea and his locker is an emblem for the grave of all those who perished at sea. First recorded in 1726,Davy Jones eventually became known as the spirit of the sea. In 1751 his name was mentioned in Chapter 15 of Tobias George Smollett's The Adventures of Peregrin Pickle described as an portentous and terrorizing fiend who "presides over all the evil spirits of the deep, and is often seen in various shapes, perching among the rigging on the eve of hurricanes, shipwrecks and other disasters." By 1803 sailors were referring to Davy Jones's locker as nautical slang the "bottom of the sea."
Like most timeless sea sagas, theories abound as to the beginnings of the phrase. Some say he was a sailor or pirate who died at sea, while others declare that Davy Jones was the name of the barkeep in the ballad 'Jones Ale Is Newe,' and his frightful locker may have been where he stocked his ale. This sixteenth-century pub owner in London was said to run a tavern where unsuspecting sailors were drugged and put in lockers, only to awaken on a ship at sea and discover they had been forced into the Navy by a press gang. A press gang is unit of men under the command of an officer authorized to force men into military service. Another expert fathoms further:
- "Since at least 1750 `gone to Davy Jones's locker' has been used by sailors to indicate death...Smollett wrote: `I'll be damned if it was not Davy Jones himself. I know him by his saucer eyes, his three rows of teeth and tail, and the blue smoke that came out of his nostrils.' This same Davy Jones, according to mythology of sailors is the fiend that presides over ... disasters to which seafaring life is exposed, warning the devoted wretch of death and woe."
Salty Dog Talk: The Nautical Origins of Everyday Expressions by Bill Beavis and Richard G. McCloskey (1983), state that Davy Jones Locker is "the final resting place for ships that sink, articles lost overboard and sailors who drown. Thus it became the sailor's phrase for death." Another conceivable account offers that while Jonah may have been the source for Jones, Davy could have come from the patron saint of Wales St. David who is frequently appealed to by Welsh sailors:
- Jonah was indeed considered bad luck to sailors aboard the vessel on which he was attempting to flee God's wrath and the phrase was first recorded in Captain Francis Grose's `Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue' (1785) as `David Jones' Locker, which lends still more support to the Welsh patron saint theory. The locker in the phrase probably refers to an ordinary seaman's chest, not the old pub owner's mysterious locker."
Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).