Release notes: sun scalds in Kipling
Kipling’s 1897 novel, Captains Courageous, is a great story, even though its whole ethos is remote from the life of today. Harvey, a spoiled rich kid, son of a railroad millionaire, falls overboard from a liner crossing the Atlantic and is picked up by a fishing boat, the We’re Here, on its way to the Grand Banks for the season. The crew are no way prepared to drop him back home on the mainland, none of his privileges are of any avail, and his only option is to become a crew member, learn the ropes, and do as he’s told. And of course, after trials and tribulations, it makes a man of him. You couldn’t get more Kiplingesque than that!
By chapter 5 the boat is on the Banks and Harvey has become a fairly experienced sailor. Occasionally there is a bit of calm weather and leisure to relax:
There were days, though, clear and soft and warm, when it seemed a sin to do anything but loaf over the hand-lines and spank the drifting ‘sunscalds’ with an oar.
What are these ‘sunscalds’? From all other evidence we know that sun scald is damage to the bark of trees or to the surfaces of leaves, fruits, or tubers, resulting from exposure to strong sunlight. The term seems to have originated in the mid-19th century in North America, where strong sunlight is plentiful. But it’s also used in Britain and elsewhere, for example by tomato growers, who have to protect their plants carefully from it. Very occasionally, the term was applied to fungal diseases which have effects on plants thought to resemble sun damage, but this use never achieved wide currency.
How could this be drifting on the sea, let alone be susceptible of ‘spanking’ with an oar? The Century Dictionary, in 1909, made a valiant attempt to explain Kipling’s use:
Surfaces of water reflecting sunlight and causing sunscald
—despite the entire absence of trees, or even tomato plants, on board the We’re Here. Our predecessor, the New English Dictionary, followed suit in 1917:
a patch of sunlight reflected on the surface of water.
But now we think we know the answer. A very similar expression, sun squall , was a regional term (now obsolete) in the United States, and especially in the Cape Cod region, for ‘jellyfish’. On calm sunny days, jellyfish can of course be seen drifting on the surface of the sea. It may have been an amusement for a ship’s boy to smack them with an oar. So sun scald seems likely to be some form of sun squall.
So how did Kipling come to use the form sun scald? It’s just possible that this existed as a variant of sun squall, otherwise unrecorded. Or Kipling, in his conversations with fishermen, mistook the word; or he absent-mindedly wrote the wrong word; or a printer made the alteration for some reason. But the word has remained in place through all reprints of the book, and successive editors have offered variations on the Century’s explanation, such as ‘possibly a patch of bubbly scum caused by a hot sun on a calm sea’. We think jellyfish are more likely.
Please note that Captains Courageous features a character referred to with the n-word.