T HAS oft been said, frequently by myself, that the Doctor only knows two sorts of songs, those for children and those for drinking. I learned a good number of children's songs during my youth as a schoolmaster. But today's discussion falls more to the latter.

Whilst at Fort Loudoun, we sang many a bawdy drinking song, and there was one I liked in particular that I had never heard before entitled 'Fathom the Bowl'. So I have done a bit of research to find the lyrics and such in an effort to better learn and understand this great song.

Fathom the Bowl

Come all you bold heroes, give an ear to my song
And well sing in the praise of good brandy and rum
There's a clear crystal fountain near England shall roll
Give me the punch ladle, I'll fathom the bowl

From France we do get brandy, from Jamaica comes rum
Sweet oranges and apples from Portugal come
But stout and strong cider are England's control
Give me the punch ladle, I'll fathom the bowl

My wife she do disturb me when I'm laid at my ease
She does as she likes and she says as she please
My wife, she's a devil, she's black as the coal
Give me the punch ladle, I'll fathom the bowl

My father he do lie in the depths of the sea
With no stone at his head but what matters for he
There's a clear crystal fountain, near England shall roll
Give me the punch ladle, I'll fathom the bowl
fath⋅om   [fath-uhm]

1. a unit of length equal to six feet (1.8 meters): used chiefly in nautical measurements. Abbreviation: fath

–verb (used with object)
2. to measure the depth of by means of a sounding line; sound.

3. to penetrate to the truth of; comprehend; understand: to fathom someone's motives.

bef. 900; ME fathme, OE fæthm span of outstretched arms; c. G Faden six-foot measure, ON fathmr; akin to

fathom. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Retrieved April 08, 2009, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/fathom

After a study of the meaning of the word 'Fathom', it leads me to wonder what exactly they mean in the song. When we 'Fathom the Bowl', are we measuring the depths of the bowl in some metaphorical sense? Or are we, in the Old English, 'outstretching our arms to embrace' the bowl? Surely we're not attempting to understand the motives of the bowl? Does a bowl of punch have motives? I suppose it depends on how many drinks from the bowl one has had now doesn't it?

I tend to think that we're 'Fathoming' in the old sense of the word and embracing with arms outstretched, I mean, it IS after all a drinking song.


Michael W. said...

Learned colleague,

I like to think that it is more about measuring the depth of the punch in the bowl, since the lyrics are "Hand me the punch ladle, I'll fathom the bowl. As you might know, wisdom and reflection come from the quantity of punch consumed. If one is wise, one never wants to stop the learning process so it is important to keep a good quantity of punch available. -grin-

The Doctor said...

Oh, you may be on to something there! You may be absolutely right on that one.

Well played my good man, well played!

W. A. Mozart said...

As a great lover of Wiener Punsch, I think that it must be a double meaning, as many drinking songs are: to measure the bowl (is there enough for all of us?) and to contemplate the bowl (consider the profound thoughts and subjects that we gentlemen enter into while sharing a bowl of punch).

The double entendre is always present in songs about drinking!

TeriDactyl said...

I realize this is a much older post, but I've been reading "If a Pirate I Must Be" by Richard Sanders, a sort of narrative biography of pirate Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts, and doing a bit of research on shanties. According to Sanders, it seems when any heavy decision was needed to be made by the crew, such as electing a new captain, the crew would make a bowl of punch, clearly something of high quality, for the occasion while they discussed the situation. So you could say "fathom" in the navel (naval?)-gazing sense, as well as "embracing".

Also consider the part about the lyricist's father. To bury someone at sea required a minimum of 6 fathoms to force the body to the bottom. I think the lyricist was quite clever to use "fathom" as the verb here, as I'm learning that sometimes shanties had double, triple, and even quadruple meanings to them! It's not unlikely that "fathom the bowl" means all of the definitions above, as well as to just throw caution to the wind and dive right to the bottom of the punch bowl! Figuratively of course. ;)