Shellbacks and polliwogs

My brother and his girlfriend are currently polliwogs, but sometime today or tomorrow they will become shellbacks. A polliwog or pollywog is a sailor who has not crossed the equator, while a shellback is one who has, or an experienced or old sailor.

According to nautical tradition, when the equator is crossed, a ceremony is performed for King Neptune and shellbacks ridicule and humiliate polliwogs.

Polliwog comes from the Middle English polwygle. Pol comes from Middle Low German polle, hair of the head, head, top of a tree, and wygle from Middle Low German, Middle Dutch wiggeln.

There’s some details of the equator crossing ceremonies in the US navy at:

And you can follow my brother’s adventures at:

This entry was posted in English, Language, Words and phrases.

6 Responses to Shellbacks and polliwogs

  1. Polly says:

    Very interesting. Sometimes my friends call me “pollywog” as an off the cuff nickname. I didn’t think it had any meaning, and I’m sure none of them knew it either. Sounds like something frogs sit on.

  2. Mike says:

    I’ve known people who use “pollywog” instead of “tadpole” for the larval form of baby frogs.

  3. Polly says:

    That’s probably where I got it from.

  4. Benjamin says:

    This tradition is idiotic. Humiliating other people is just dumb.
    I mean if they all actually were to be masochists and would like to be humiliated, it would be fine. That is, however, a completely different story. 😉

    I just can’t understand such traditions. Where is the need behind it. Why would one do that to become a shellback. So he can do the same to other pollywogs? Stupid.

  5. Jim says:

    Ahoy. Maybe you are right. it is a stupid ceremony. But it helps lift the spirits of those who protect your right to
    think that way, especially when you are away from those
    that you love. By the way, everyone has the right to
    deny participating in the ceremony.

  6. Macleide says:

    Stupid? Only to the uninformed. I am a shellback. The ceremony/”hazing” was a great way to have fun on an otherwise uneventful voyage across the Indian Ocean. There is much rich pagan tradition surrounding the crossing. Even though most folks don’t take much of it seriously in the literal sense of honoring Neptune and his subjects, it serves as a reminder of the real majesty of the sea and the world within.

    Beannacht leat!

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