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Taking the King's Shilling

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Frederick The Monk
163630.  Fri Apr 06, 2007 9:37 am Reply with quote

I've never heard of ships being rated by coloured pegs though and I worked with a bunch of people who built a full-sized 16th century warship last year. I'm sure they would have mentioned it. I thought ships were rated by, er, 'rate' depending on their size and number of guns they carried.

163649.  Fri Apr 06, 2007 10:34 am Reply with quote

Brewer's has these two separate explanations, both of which seem rather better, although it does suffer from the 'rating' problem, which needs other corroboration:

Peg too Low. Low-spirited, moody. Our Saxon ancestors were accustomed to use peg-tankards, or tankards with a peg inserted at equal intervals, that when two or more drank from the same bowl, no one might exceed his fair proportion. We are told that St. Dunstan introduced the fashion to prevent brawling.
I am a peg too low means, I want another draught to cheer me up.

“Come, old fellow, drink down to your peg!
But do not drink any farther, I beg.”
Longfellow: Golden Legend, iv.

To take one down a peg. To take the conceit out of a braggart or pretentious person. The allusion here is not to peg-tankards, but to a ship's colours, which used to be raised and lowered by pegs; the higher the colours are raised the greater the honour, and to take them down a peg would be to award less honour.

“Trepanned your party with intrigue,
And took your grandees down a peg.”
Butler: Hudibras, ii. 2.

163652.  Fri Apr 06, 2007 10:39 am Reply with quote

Peg tankards:

From the V&A

Tankards like this were marked inside with a series of pegs and would have been filled with wine or beer and passed around, each person having to drink until the next peg was showing.

And some more:

From Drinking Vessels of Bygone Days, by G. J. MONSON-FITZJOHN, B.Sc.,F.R.Hist.S.

Not a 'law' then, but a social nicety. And almost certainly nothing to do with 'taking down a peg or two' which would make no sense in this context.

163666.  Fri Apr 06, 2007 11:06 am Reply with quote

It looks to me as though the Dictionary of Cliches has misunderstood the meaning of the word "colours", failing to appreciate that it refers to flags.

163674.  Fri Apr 06, 2007 11:36 am Reply with quote

Good point. Nice etymarchaeology there.


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