Thursday 24 March 2016

On Boaty McBoatface

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) recently invited the public to come up with a  name for their yet-to-be-launched £200 million polar research vessel. In a press release the NERC said:

We're looking for an inspirational name that exemplifies the work it will do. The ship could be named after a local historical figure, movement, or landmark - or a famous polar explorer or scientist. We would like the name to be inspirational and about environmental and polar science, to help us tell everyone about the amazing work the ship does.

Some predictable ideas came in - Endeavour, Henry Worsley, David Attenborough, Falcon, Falkland Islands and so on. But the one that attracted overwhelming public support came from a 'communications manager' called James Hand. His suggestion? RSS Boaty McBoatface. This struck a chord with the British public, attracting over 100,000 votes, many more than such other strong contenders as RSS Pingu, RSS Sink Sinkington and RSS Splashy Trousers (and I'm not making these up).

We've come a long way since the Suez crisis and the 'orderly management of decline'. The thought of  of a high-minded research vessel called Boaty McBoatface has made me laugh, and more than once, and prompts some brief reflections on the naming of boats, as follows:

1. The Royal Navy has a long tradition on naming new ships after previous vessels, many of the names dating back to the Battle of Trafalgar. They have a butch bell-bottom'd swagger to them - Bulwark, Defiant, Dreadnought, that kind of thing. One thinks of stalwart chaps in waterlogged duffel coats on the North Atlantic convoys, sipping cocoa.

You can find a complete list of currently active Royal Navy vessels here. Completely fascinating, and I notice that we no longer have an aircraft carrier in the fleet.

2. Merchant ships have less of a bellicose history. These days they tend to be lumbered with horrible corporate names - remember The Herald of Free Enterprise?

3. Oligarch yachts. The Prince of Brunei has a yacht named "Tits" and two lifeboats called "Nipple 1" and "Nipple 2". What a guy!

4. Humble fishing boast (my favourite sea-going vessels) should always have cosy, briny names like Saucy Sal. 

5. Speedboats (and one thinks of course of the great Donald Campbell) should as a rule be called Bluebird, followed by a number (in Roman numerals, of course)

6. Cruise ships, trollops of the high seas, tend to have queasily corporate hospitality names and you can see a list here. Some seem to be channelling 1970s pornstars. Carnival Ecstasy? Celebrity Equinox?The Cunard fleet employed variations on Queen Elizabeth (and, anticipating J-Lo, the QE2).

Now none of this is a patch on Claude Levi Strauss's brilliant anthropological analysis of animal names, which I haven'f been able to find on line. Auden quoted form it at length in his wonderful commonplace book A Certain World. So if you have access to a copy do look it up. Meanwhile Boaty McBoatface has become a kind of chortling armature - passengers at Waterloo station yesterday were given the option of boarding a 'Trainy McTrainface'. Where is this all leading us?

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