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Tell me why: Commodore June 4, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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For whatever reason, our friend Ben woke up this morning thinking about Commodore Perry. And it occurred to me that I had no idea where the word “Commodore” came from or even what it meant.

Now, this is far from the first nautically-related term that’s bemused our friend Ben. (What the heck’s a bo’sun, anyway?!) But it’s such a great word—sort of a three-way cross between commander, Komodo dragon, and the Emperor Commodus—that I just had to look it up and find out more about it. 

Sheesh. Wouldn’t you know, it turns out to be an exclusively American naval title? The descent of the word is unclear, but Webster’s New World Collegiate Dictionary takes its probable origins back to the Old French comander via the Dutch kommandeur

And what does it mean? Quoting the dictionary: “1 U.S. Navy a) [Historical] an officer ranking above a captain but below a rear admiral: the rank was abolished in 1899 but temporarily restored in WWII b) an officer, with the rank of captain, commanding two or more small ships, as destroyers  2 the president of a yacht club  3 the senior captain of a merchant fleet”

Clearly needing a refresher on the only two Commodores I’d ever heard of, Commodore Perry and Commodore Vanderbilt, our friend Ben turned to my good friend, Google. Who were these guys, anyway?

Our friend Ben decided to investigate Cornelius Vanderbilt first, since Vanderbilt University plays such a big role in the life of my hometown Nashville, and I took advanced French and poetry courses there while I was in high school across the street. (Aced ’em, too. but I digress.)

Turns out that Vanderbilt, unlike Perry, was never in the Navy. Instead, he was a shipping magnate who built his enormous fortune running ferries in the Long Island and Staten Island areas and ocean-going steamships to facilitate the Gold Rush (and later railroad, real estate, and other business ventures). According to Wikipedia: “It was in the 1830s when he was first referred to as ‘commodore’, then the highest rank in the United States Navy. A common nickname for important steamboat entrepreneurs, it stuck to Vanderbilt alone by the end of the 1840s.”

And Commodore Perry, the cause of this adventure? Again, quoting Wikipedia: “Matthew Calbraith Perry (April 10, 1794-March 4, 1858) was the Commodore of the U.S. Navy who compelled the opening of Japan to the West with the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854.” That makes him an exact contemporary of Commodore Vanderbilt (May 27, 1794-January 4, 1877). Both men were born only six years after the U.S. Constitution was ratified, and were true children of the American Revolution, though only Vanderbilt lived to see the new nation torn apart and reforged by the Civil War.

Well. Another day, another mystery resolved. And in case you’re wondering, “bo’sun” (also “bosun,” “bo’s’n”) is the phonetic spelling of “boatswain,” “a ship’s warrant officer or petty officer in charge of the deck crew, the rigging, anchors, boats, etc.” Which is to say, it’s still pronounced “bosun” even when spelled “boatswain.” I guess I’ll never understand nautical thinking.

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