On Being Aptly Named

terrorIf you were going to embark on a lengthy, dangerous journey of exploration, how would you feel about signing onto the crew of the HMS Terror? Doesn’t that strike anyone else as a tad ominous?

The HMS Terror suffered a horrific fate. No surprise there. Its demise was so great, though, that it ranks among the worst ever suffered by the Royal Navy. And its ultimate fate remained unconfirmed until this past week when the wreck was found, resting on the ocean floor, 168 years after it perished during the ill-fated Franklin Expedition.

Along with the HMS Erebus, the Terror was supposed to traverse the Northwest Passage. The evidence shows, however, the ice trapped the ships, and both crews perished trying to make their way south across the floes. (There is evidence of cannibalism during that doomed journey, something attested to by Inuit oral traditions.)

The voyage had begun well enough. The vessels had been fitted for the harsh environment after a rather auspicious exploration of the coast of Antarctica. There they had discovered the Ross Ice Shelf, and in honor of their mission, two Antarctic features were named for them Mounts Erebus & Terror, on Ross Island.

Upon their return to London, iron plate was added to their hulls and coal-fueled steam engines were installed.

Sadly, the Arctic proved less hospitable, and their entrance into Baffin Bay in August 1845 marked the final time either ship was seen until now. An extensive search at the time proved futile. Their respective discoveries are announced here, and here.

Around 130 men abandoned the ships when they became icebound. Some of their bones were recovered from King William Island. The sad story has been recited in many places, including this article which was written when the wreck of the Erebus was discovered.

As in the Antarctic, here too the ships were honored by having natural features named after them. Fittingly, Erebus Bay and Terror Bay hug the west coast of King William Island, just north of which marked the estimated position where the ships were abandoned.

Read on, and learn something quite interesting about the names of these two ill-fated ships.

Naming Ships

I have written about the importance of names in the past.*

There are a variety of conventions for christening ships. Some result in creative names, but others are quite mundane. In the United States, with plenty of exceptions, the contemporary patterns for naming ships vary by their type of class. For example:

Aircraft Carriers – are now named after Presidents

Amphibious Assault Ships – early Ships or USMC Battles

Ballistic Missile Submarines – States

Fast Attack Submarines – Cities

Cruisers – Past Battles

Frigates – Navy, Marine or Coast Guard Heroes

Patrol Boats – Weather Phenomena like Squall, Monsoon and Cyclone

Of course, like everything else in the United States, the naming of ships is prone to becoming politicized, as this entertaining article reveals.

Other nations have followed comparable christening patterns throughout recent centuries. Grouping similarly functioning vessels with particular themes makes sense. That way if you encountered a ship named Blue Dwarf or Yellow Dwarf, you could make a well educated guess that the vessel was a mining ship, and part of the Jupiter Mining conglomerate.

I suppose even garbage scows are named in some logical fashion, perhaps after politicians?

Unsurprisingly, in addition to battles, heroes, and major cities, aquatic life has been a common feature. Thus pre-Soviet Russian subs were named things like Walrus or Shark (albeit, in Cyrillic).

The Royal Navy shared an affinity for marine life, and Dolphin was a popular example. There were no fewer than a dozen ships, thus named, although some were fairly modest (including a convict ship used in the first have of the nineteenth century).

I actually possess the altar rail from the ship’s chapel in the HMS Dolphin that was commissioned in 1882. But that’s a sea tale for another day . . .

C.S. Lewis christened a ship of his own. He even included its name in the title of the Chronicle of Narnia which describes its quest: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The ship herself was modest, but marked a new age of Narnia exploration.

The name of the ship was Dawn Treader. She was only a little bit of a thing compared with one of our ships, or even with the cogs, dromonds, carracks and galleons which Narnia had owned when Lucy and Edmund had reigned there under Peter as the High King, for nearly all navigation had died out in the reigns of Caspian’s ancestors. . . .

But now Caspian had begun to teach the Narnians to be sea-faring folk once more, and the Dawn Treader was the finest ship he had built yet.

She was so small that, forward of the mast, there was hardly any deck room between the central hatch and the ship’s boat on one side and the hen-coop (Lucy fed the hens) on the other.

But she was a beauty of her kind, a “lady” as sailors say, her lines perfect, her colors pure, and every spar and rope and pin lovingly made.

In his Middle Earth sagas, J.R.R. Tolkien includes the names of a number of ships.

Eärrámë – Sea Wing

Númerrámar – Sunset Wings

Palarran – Far-Wanderer

Vingilótë – Foam Flower

Hirilondë – Haven Finder

Entulessë – Return (sailed by Vëantur during the Númenórean’s return to Middle Earth)

The Inklings appear to have given the decision of naming their ships the attention the activity merits.

More about the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus

The name of the HMS Terror was, of course, not chosen to jinx its future. It was thus named to instill fear in those it opposed. This was natural, since it was originally commissioned as a warship, as was the Erebus. In fact, the two vessels were the same exact type of warship.

So, how might “Terror” and “Erebus,” the mythological Greek deity of darkness, who shared his name with an abode of the dead? It becomes clearer when we learn that both of the ships originally served as “bomb ships.” Like later battleships, these vessels were designed to rain fire from the sky—something terrifying to stationary garrisons.

The names of some of their sister ships whose mortars fired upon enemies of the British Empire included Thunder, Vesuvius, and Hecla (the Icelandic volcano).

The HMS Terror actually saw combat, prior to its conversion to peaceful pursuits. Amazingly, it was among the bomb ships—accompanied by the Volcano, Meteor, Devastation and Aetna—during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. Thus, the Terror is also memorialized in the national anthem of the United States: “the bombs bursting in air.”

Curiously, the predecessor of the HMS Erebus we have been discussing, a “rocket vessel” with the same name, inspired the lyrics “by the rocket’s red glare,” at the same historic battle.


* The importance of naming has led me to address the subject from a number of angles through the years.

The Power of Names

Crying for Attention

From Ear to Quill

Pet Names

Powerful Names

Sharing Surnames

Fleeting Fame

red-dwarfAnd, for those who recognized the homage to Red Dwarf


13 thoughts on “On Being Aptly Named

  1. Bedtime reading for the kids is Verne’s 20k leagues – we’re just to the part where Nemo visits the South Pole and Professor Arronax educates us on the subject of Mts Terror and Erebus. Interesting follow-up – thanks.

    Fair warning – I intend to steal that bit about naming garbage scows after politicians. I’ll be sure to give you due attribution.

    1. What a fun bedtime book. Heard to lay it down at the end of each appointed reading though, I’ll bet.

      That idea about garbage scows is rather apropos, especially given the day in which we live. By all means, share it far and wide.

    1. It’s fascinating how this discovery has draws our three nations together…
      Great Britain… whose explorers braved the dangers of going where few had gone before…
      Canada… whose vast northern mysteries were being probed for fabled secrets…
      and the United States… whose citizens had a firestorm of shot and flame raining down upon them, seeking to crush the impudent former colony.

      That’s a great article about the discovery… “it’s either a whale skeleton or a ship!”

  2. Ditto on the garbage scowls (Brilliant idea – will credit you!)
    We have sailed for many years – boat names are carefully chosen by most ( there are the stupid silly one, but those boats seem a a little uneasy, maybe even unhappy) – a bit uneasy when I see one sold and renamed…one get one first ring of the bell..

      1. I’d scowl too if they designated me for that duty.

        Isn’t it odd how brief the lifespan of most warships is? Before you know it they’re obsolete, covered with barnacles, scrapped, or sold off to some small country with a three-ship navy…

        At least these two bomb ships got to “go out” as research vessels!

      2. We still have the Battleship Texas near here. (http://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/battleship-texas/park_history)
        I remember touring it as a very tiny kid and was pretty impressed it was so big. Still pretty amazing even if not high tech. Supporters are struggling to keep it afloat and from rusting away. You can explore more and more of it as work is completed – and can even have sleepovers on it (spooky)
        While battleships make great reefs, good to keep some around to let people know…and see …what it was all about. These vessels servicable but not too comfortable apparently – dad said he got horriby sea sick across and back during WW II on one.

      3. I recall going aboard the USS Missouri when she was docked here at Naval Station Bremerton years ago.

        Battleships are quite impressive. Aircraft carriers and Trident subs too. Especially enjoyed visiting the HMS Victory in Portsmouth.

  3. RE: names, with a C.S.Lewis tangent. Today is the anniversary of the landing of William the Bastard (later Conqueror) at Pevensey. I don’t know, and may never know, if this was an influence on Lewis’s choice of names for the name for the briefly ruling family of Narnia. It does, however, seem apt.

    1. I actually have wondered about possible connection for those names. Haven’t come across evidence of it… but it certainly seems reasonable.

      As for the Normans… they certainly left their mark on England, didn’t they? One wonders how history would have differed if King Harold had not had to defeat a Viking invasion immediately prior to the invasion from the south..?

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