What does the gowk really say?

A scene from The Fortune of War (6th in the series), which includes the wonderful word “gowk”.

At this time our friends Capt. Aubrey, Dr. Maturin and some of the crew from HMS Leopard are on their way back to England via HMS La Fleche, carrying dispatches.  Dr. Maturin and the officers of are in the gun room.

[The Leopards] found a fellow-spirit in the master, and presently their end of the table was in a fine flow of conversation, reminiscence, anecdote, and laughter – former shipmates recalled, other commissions compared. Stephen laid out some pains in being agreeable to McLean, who sat by him, eating voraciously with a good deal of noise; but until half way through the meal there was little or no response. Then at last persuaded that Dr Maturin was neither going to snub or scorn him, McLean said, ‘I hae your bukes,’ adding something that Stephen could not catch, the accent being so strong, the voice so lowered in embarrassment. But judging by the young man’s expression, the words were obliging, so Stephen bowed, murmuring, ‘You are very good, too kind. I believe, sir, you are a naturalist yourself?’  Yes. As a wee bairn McLean first skelpit a mickle whaup his Daddie had whangit wi a stane, and then ilka beastie that came his way; comparative anatomy had been his joy from that day to this, and he named some of the beasties whose inward parts he had compared. But since the scoutie-allen, the partan, the clokie-doo and the gowk seemed not to convey any precise idea, he followed them with the Linnaean names; Stephen did the same for the creatures he referred to, and from this it was no great way to Latin descriptions of their more interesting processes. McLean was fluent in the language, having been to Jena, and Stephen found him far more comprehensible; presently they were talking away at a great rate, with barely a word of English but Och aye, and Hoot awa. They were deep in the caecum of Monodon monoceros when Stephen, becoming aware of a silence on his right, looked up and met the delighted grin of Babbington and Byron.  ‘We had just been boasting about you, sir,’ said Babbington. ‘We said you could talk Latin to beat a bishop, and these fellows would not believe it.’

Later La Fleche will burn at sea and explode.  The survivors are finally and after great suffering picked up by HMS Java in time for her battle with USS Constitution.  Following an interlude in early 19th c. Boston, we read about the battle between HMS Shannon and USS Chesapeake.

Want an unabridged recording?  The best reading of the series is, without a doubt, by Simon Vance on Blackstone Audio.  Here.

Those who know the Aubrey/Maturin series need no explanations.  All I can say to those who have not yet read them is that I envy you the pleasure of their discovery.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. bened1ct2s says:

    To alleviate some of the burden on non Scots readers here is a translation of:

    gowk:- a cuckoo. However it commonly used as a description of an individual e.g. “gleckit gowk” which loosely means stupid fool.

    partan:- Gaelic word which mean edible crab (the same word is used in Lowland Scots).

    scoutie-allen:- (Gaelic “faoilean”) meaning common gull

    clokie-doo:- pearl oyster

    skelpit:- slap or smack e.g. “skelpit lug” meaning a smack on the ear. (My late father was very good at delivering those!).

  2. medievalist says:

    Since this is WDTPRS…

    Thank you Father for not using ‘the’ HMS! Her, (olim) His, Majesty’s Ships do not take the definite article. I did, however, always think that USS did take the definite article, thus ‘the United States’ Ships’, but perhaps someone can resolve this?

  3. HyacinthClare says:

    How is “gowk” pronounced? (I’m always the one that asks those questions, I know.) Benedict12s? Help! I’m totally Scots-challenged.

  4. Martial Artist says:


    US Navy ships, just as Royal Navy ships, are generally referred to without the definite article, unless omitting it would make for an awkward construction (see asterisk, in the next sentence). During my career I served on USS Scamp, USS Patrick Henry (Blue), USS Patrick Henry (Blue) and USNS H. H. Hess. The first of those was a nuclear powered attack submarine of the Scorpion class, the second and third were Ballistic missile submarines of the George Washington class, (the parenthetical signifying on which of the two rotating crews I served), and the fourth was a deep ocean survey ship, converted from a C-4 Mariner hull break-bulk grain carrier originally built for the American Mail Lines (a commercial shipping firm) as the SS Canada Mail,* and was manned by a civilian crew (licensed merchant mariners, properly referred to as “wage mariners”) and carrying a U. S. Navy tenant command of 3 officers, 27 enlisted and 12 or 13 civilian hydrographic surveyors/nautical cartographers. I was an enlisted man (Submarine Sonar Technician) on the submarines, was eventually selected to go to OCS, and was commissioned after 5 years 9 months service as an Ensign (Naval Oceanography).

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer, LCDR, USN [ret]

  5. Martial Artist says:


    I believe that “gowk” is pronounced like the first syllable of the word “gouge” followed by the standard hard K.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  6. AnAmericanMother says:

    HyacinthClare, MartialArtist,
    That’s correct (although my people are highland, not Lallans). We can look to Burns:

    But why should we to Nobles jouk,
    And is’t against the law, that?
    For why, a Lord may be a gowk,
    Wi’ ribband, star and a’ that,
    For a’ that, and a’ that,
    Here’s Heron yet for a’ that!
    A Lord may be a lousy loun,
    Wi’ ribband, star and a’ that.

    There’s a custom in Scotland that’s the equivalent of sending the new hand for a left-handed monkey wrench, etc. The victim is sent with a message, which reads, “Dinna laugh and dinna smile, hunt the gowk another mile.” Whereupon he’s sent on with another message, and so on.

  7. Rachel says:

    An excellent post! Anyone who wants a CD of songs of the British Navy from the time of the Aubrey/Maturin series (around 1800) should check out Roast Beef of Old England.

  8. Patti Day says:

    DH and I enjoy reading aloud to one another. Not every book is conducive to being read aloud. Moby Dick was one we really enjoyed, taking turns most evenings over the course of several months last winter. Once we got a feel for the language, we really looked forward to reading time. A glass of wine or a small scotch makes pronunciation easier…up to a point. I think we should try this series.

  9. Patti, you should definitely try this series! I enjoy reading these books aloud to myself!

  10. Mariana says:

    Kindly someone explain!

  11. B Haley says:

    Since your last posting on the Aubrey/Maturin series, I checked out Simon Vance’s recording of the first in the series, Master and Commander. I have since bought the finely bound complete series and am nearly finished with volume 2. [That’s great! The only observation I would make is that Mr. Vance hits his stride in his recording of the second book, Post Captain. What is so good about his recordings is his vocal characterizations which reflect also the character development in the books. The only thing Vance struggles with is his pronunciation of Latin. And I don’t think that he is reflecting the oddities of older British pronunciation, to which O’Brian adverts in the series from time time time.]

    O’Brian is a master of writing in a style I would call contemporary, and still maintains the richness and beauty of the language, culture, and conflicts of the early 19th century. What a series. I am confident it will be considered a classic.

    Finally, a Jane Austen styled novel written by a man and exemplifying the virtues and thinking processes of men.

    Thank you for bringing this to your readers’ attention.

    Ps. I have been praying for your intentions. I hope you will give us an updating when the time is right.

  12. irishgirl says:

    I like British sailors’ songs (went over on your link, Rachel), and I like reading aloud to myself (as you do, Heather)! I know that the ‘Last Night At The Proms’ in London always has a medley of British sea songs that the audience goes nuts over! Who doesn’t like clapping along to ‘The Sailors’ Hornpipe’?
    And I say an extra Hail Mary at the end of my Rosary for you, Father Z. I echo Bill Haley’s hope that you will give us updates on your ‘urgent intentions’.

  13. AnAmericanMother says:

    I was remiss in failing to mention that we continue to pray here for your intentions. I’m trying to get to Mass during the week at every opportunity and pray for your intentions there as well.

    irishgirl, Rachel –

    Great link! And I always like Cruikshank’s implausible blowsy women and hilariously jolly tars.

    But . . . clap along? Get up and DANCE! All I know is the Highland Dance competition version of the hornpipe, but what the heck!


    (many of the steps are optional, so long as you do three.) None of these dancers do my favorite, where your legs turn to rubber in a rocking step. It always makes me laugh while I’m doing it. In my late 50s, I have to nix the down-and-up, I can still do it, but there’s a heave and scramble like an old mare getting up from a good roll. Makes the spectator wonder if I’m actually going to make it back up again . . .

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