Friday, July 14, 2017

'HMS' and 'USS': Not a Thing?

In secondary sources, the use of 'HMS' and 'USS' to describe ships of the British and American navies in the eighteenth century is almost a given. Both serve as abbreviations: His/Her Majesty's Ship, and United States Ship respectively. Is that what people used in the second half of the eighteenth century?

There are a myriad of examples in primary sources for the use of 'His Majesty's Ship' before the actual vessel's name. Sometimes it is more specific: His Majesty's Frigate, or His Majesty's Sloop.

The New-York Evening Post, April 20, 1747, page 2

As to the use of an abbreviation, there is no evidence I have yet uncovered. The memoirs written by eighteenth century American sailors Ashley Bowen, Timothy Boardman, Christopher Prince, and Christopher Hawkins, the enslaved Olaudah Equiano who spent years aboard Royal Navy vessels, and British sailors William Spavens, James Wyatt, and Samuel Kelly are all devoid of the abbreviations. Granted, many of these men served in a time before there was an American navy, and so USS would necessarily be absent, but HMS is entirely missing as well.

Word searchable databases make the job of sussing out this myth quite a bit easier. Using America's Historical Newspapers, the Newspaper Archive, Accessible Archives, and Google Books, I dove into the search for HMS and USS. Unfortunately, I am not satisfied with the results. Many of these platforms rely on transcriptions that are unreliable. The false positives for HMS and USS numbered in the thousands between all of these.

Given that I haven't found a definitive reference yet, I am inclined to think that the abbreviations came along later, or that they were very, very sparsely used. I should emphasize again, this applies only to my period of study, and not to later use.

Have you found a source I've overlooked? Is there a reference that changes this? Leave a comment and start the discussion!


  1. Can verify for 1680-1740 British documents that there are tons of instances of spelling out "His Majesties Navy" or "Her Majesties Navy", but they never did the abbreviation. Then again, I do not recollect them using abbreviations like that in documents much at all. Sure, there are the shortened versions of words like Mr for Mister and yr for your and so on, but outright acronyms with each letter representing a whole word don't seem common at all, at least not in the maritime documents realm.

  2. Looking at Google's NGram tool, which is based on books scanned for their online access project, it's pretty clear that both terms only came into broad usage in the late 19th century, at the earliest. This technology is deeply imperfect, being based on uncorrected OCR, but I have found it useful for determining when terms enter the written language on many projects.

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