Sailor's bed

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If I were a cruciverbalist, I might use that as a clue for "hammock", though it didn't turn up here:

nor here:

but it was first here:

With somer a-comin' — though spryng has barely sprung, at least not in these parts — it's time to drag out our dusty, trusty hammocks and hang them between two trees.  But, historically, just what is a "hammock", and where did the word come from?

The word hammock comes, via Spanish, from a Taíno culture Arawakan word meaning "stretch of cloth" from the Arawak root -maka. The Amerindian origin of the word was often obscured in English-language sources from the late 18th century onward. Samuel Johnson claimed that it was of Saxon origin, but his etymology was soon debunked. Hamaka was meaningfully transformed into modern German Hängematte, Swedish Hängmatta and Dutch Hangmat, and calqued from Swedish into Finnish riippumatto (all literally hanging mat).


History of the hammock

The hammock reappears in unequivocal form in another medieval English source, the Luttrell Psalter (dated to c. 1330), where it has developed to a regular hanging bed. The sling now ends in two rope beckets that anticipate the rings of the naval hammock. Like the earliest known naval specimen the fabric is canvas, not the netting the Spanish later encountered in the New World. The Dutch historian of technology André Sleeswyk argues that it may have been this English type that eventually spread through the European navies despite the word hammock later being adopted from the Americas:

It may be significant that in the first official mention of hammocks in the Royal Navy of 1597 they are not referred to under that name, but as 'hanging cabbons or beddes'. The medieval canvas hammock may have been an English invention which was not known on the continent when Columbus made his voyage. In the course of the seventeenth century its use spread to the navies of Western Europe, and eventually it was given the same name as the Caribbean hammock of netting which came to Europe when Columbus returned.


Since many of my mates really are sailors, it's worth delving a little deeper into the origins and history of this curious word.  From a master's thesis (reference below) on the use of hammocks and the origin of hammocks used on board ship, predominantly wind-driven sailing ships, come the following paragraphs:

    The date and location of the development of the hammock within in [sic] the New World is unclear. Its origin of tropical fibers from humid environments mitigated against its survival as an artifact in the archaeological record. Although uncertain, scholars, such as Sven Loven, think the Arawak were the first to develop the hammock, weaving them from cassava, bark, agave, or bast fiber. The sub-Caribbean group of the Arawak, the Taíno, adapted the concept with the use of cotton. Then another group, the Caribs, brought the cotton hammock to the Lesser Antilles. Many early explorers described the use of the cotton hammock including Columbus in 1492, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo in 1542, and Sir Walter Ralegh in 1598. Their writings describe them as made of cotton and a standard widely-used household item. Oviedo even observed a warehouse-like place with an abundance of hammocks, implying that they were a desired commodity.  (pp. 13-14)

    Christopher Columbus’ contact with the New World exposed Europeans to hammocks for the first time. On November 3, 1492, shortly after his landfall in what is now Cuba, he commented in his journal, “Great numbers of canoes came to the ships this day for the purpose of bartering their cotton, and nets or hammocs on which they sleep.” This is the first recorded use of the word, and as it was not already part of the Spanish language, it is probable that Christopher Columbus parroted the native word he heard: hamacas. Scholars believe the word is of Taíno origin. (pp. 20-21)

… Despite Spain having the first contact with hammocks, there are seemingly few sources describing Spain’s adoption of hammocks, possibly for good reason. In his research about Spanish shipboard life, Pablo Perez-Mallaína remarks that he could only find one reference to the use of a hammock and that all the other references to sleeping conditions spoke of cots and mattresses. This may be due, again, to a  language issue or a lack of distinguishing vocabulary. It seems the eighteenth century use of the Spanish word “coy” referred to all bedding, including mattresses, cots, and hammocks, although the contemporary use of the word refers specifically to “cot.” This is clear in the image below (figure 3), which is a depiction of a sailor’s outfit during the eighteenth century professionalization of the Spanish Navy. The image depicts items that look like a hammock, mattress, and cot, all labeled as “coy.” A simple lack of distinguishing vocabulary could be the reason for the unclear level of use; or, as Pablo Pérez suggests, Spanish sailors may have preferred “a small mattress to lie on, and in many cases, only the night sky as a roof for their dreams.” (pp. 24-25)

    The adoption and spread of hammocks within French vessels, is even more difficult to track and discern. Some translations of early French works use the contemporary spelling for hammock, yet others use hammoc or hamack. Historians seem to agree that the most utilized French terminology was hamack and branle. (p. 25)

 The Dutch seem to have adopted a fairly universal language for hammocks early on, using hangmak, hangmat or hangmatten. Although they had standardized words, it is unclear to what extent they adopted and used them aboard ships, illustrated by the identification of bunks aboard Dutch vessels by several  authors. Searching any of the Dutch terminology generates a plethora of sources; however, again without a working knowledge of the language, evaluation of them for this thesis is not possible. This is one area for future research. Ironically, despite Spanish discovery of the hammock and the prominence of early Dutch trade, the English recorded the majority of information about the utilization and adaptation of the hammock. (pp. 25-26)

The author concludes with the need for additional investigation:

 … Although this author has attempted to address every facet of the importance of hammocks, there are still many areas for improvement.

    The primary difficulty faced by this author, and therefore an area left incomplete, is the barrier of language. The inability to access and evaluate sources in other languages created gaps in the available information and therefore is one area future authors can expound upon. Although limited written record by early Caribbean and Mesoamerican cultures exists, those with advanced knowledge of their culture and languages may be able to expand on the origin of the hammock. Alternatively, possibly even those educated on Greek and Roman history could discern a detailed origin of the hammock, as one author postulates Alcibiades developed the hammock for the Athenian fleet in the early 400’s BC in Athens.

The largest gap created by language barriers is the possible primary research on the adoption of and use of hammocks on Spanish, Dutch, and French maritime vessels, as this thesis mainly deals with British and United States ships. It is clear substantial material from other nations, especially from Dutch sources, is available. Vocabularies of other languages, however, pose future difficulties. While there are other spellings of hammock throughout the decades in English, different languages have more than one word to describe hammocks that also double as other words. … (pp. 134-135)

This is a remarkable M.A. thesis, one that I think is worthy of being regarded as a Ph.D. dissertation.  It is profusely illustrated with illuminating figures, thoroughly researched, densely documented, and persuasively presented.

Here's the link to the complete thesis.  Bibliographical information and abstract:

Hammocks: A Maritime Tool
Michele Panico
A Thesis presented to the Department of Department History [sic]
East Carolina University
In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree
Masters [sic] of Arts in Maritime Studies
November 2018


Hammocks: A Maritime Tool


Michele Panico

November, 2018

Director of Thesis:  Dr. Angela Thompson

Major Department:  Maritime Studies

    During the age of sail, sailors slept in hammocks made of canvas, suspended on the gundecks and secured to the beams above. This work seeks to understand the adoption and adaptation of hammocks as a maritime tool on sailing vessels and the subsequent impact and changes their presence caused. The adoption of hammocks onto maritime vessels affected all aspects of life at sea; including alterations to the construction and supplies needed aboard ships, which resulted in monetary impacts. Hammocks allowed for an increase in the number of men aboard vessels, they shaped modifications and improvements in sleeping conditions, and strengthened the divisions in ranks, while also acting as a means of comradery. In addition, hammocks created revisions in rules and regulations. Likewise, they altered forms of protection and defenses. Furthermore, hammocks affected health and hygiene by playing large roles in governing the cleanliness of ships and sailors. They also had various functions in relation to the sickbay, including a key part in burial. Finally, this thesis concludes with the replacement of hammocks by bunks. Ultimately, it evaluates the hammock as a maritime tool that influenced life at sea during the age of sail.

Selected readings

[Thanks to Barbara Phillips Long]


  1. Doctor Science said,

    May 11, 2022 @ 2:20 pm

    The link to the thesis doesn't work.

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    May 11, 2022 @ 2:44 pm

    Thesis — try here.

  3. Peter Taylor said,

    May 11, 2022 @ 6:11 pm

    I am puzzled by the final clause of

    It seems the eighteenth century use of the Spanish word “coy” referred to all bedding, including mattresses, cots, and hammocks, although the contemporary use of the word refers specifically to “cot.”

    The DRAE's definition is unequivocally a hammock:

    Mar. Trozo de lona o tejido de malla en forma de rectángulo que, colgado de sus extremos, sirve de cama a bordo.

    (My translation: maritime; a piece of canvas or woven netting with a rectangular shape which, hung from its ends, serves as a bed on board).

  4. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    May 11, 2022 @ 6:37 pm

    The author focused on languages used by nations doing a lot of ocean seafaring, and mentions some hammock terms that relate to Brazil ("Brazil beds, brasill beds" on p. 22 of the thesis). But I just realized there seems to be no investigation of the word hammock in Portuguese in the thesis.

    The Wikipedia entry says Portugal has the longest-established navy:

    On 12 December 2017, the Portuguese Navy commemorated the 700th anniversary of its official creation by King Denis of Portugal. Tracing its origins back to the 12th century, it is the oldest continuously serving navy in the world.

  5. jin defang said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 9:35 am

    But there's also an entirely separate meaning for hammock, which is botanical: an area of flora and fauna. I've not been able to find the etymology of it. Below is the link to one of these. It is possible to hang one's hammock in a hammock.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 12:06 pm

    Cool sequence assembled by Denis Mair:

    hammock, hassock, tussock, cassock

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 12:09 pm

    Jin Defang — the OED does not admit of the sense to which you refer, but Wikipedia has this to say :

    Hammock is a term used in the southeastern United States for stands of trees, usually hardwood, that form an ecological island in a contrasting ecosystem. Hammocks grow on elevated areas, often just a few inches high, surrounded by wetlands that are too wet to support them. The term hammock is also applied to stands of hardwood trees growing on slopes between wetlands and drier uplands supporting a mixed or coniferous forest. Types of hammocks found in the United States include tropical hardwood hammocks, temperate hardwood hammocks, and maritime or coastal hammocks. Hammocks are also often classified as hydric (wet soil), mesic (moist soil) or xeric (dry soil). The types are not exclusive, but often grade into each other.

    Unlike many ecosystems of the coastal plain of the southeastern United States, hammocks are not tolerant of fire. Hammocks tend to occur in locations where fire is not common, or where there is some protection from fire in neighboring ecosystems. Hammocks have begun developing in historic times in areas where fire has been suppressed through human intervention, or where elevations above wetlands have been created by dredging, mining, road and causeway building, and other human activities. On the other hand, many hammocks have been destroyed by development, as they often occur on higher land in desirable locations, such as barrier islands and other waterfront locations.

    The etymology of the term "hammock" is obscure. Dictionaries usually give it as an archaic form of "hummock" ("hammock" appeared in print earlier than "hummock"). "Hammock" is first attested in English in the 1550s as a nautical term for a tree-covered island (a mound of trees) seen on the horizon. "Hammock" is used to refer to stands of hardwood trees on the coastal plain from North Carolina to Mississippi. Types of hammock described in the literature include:

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 12:29 pm

    Victor — even though "it didn't turn up here", a variant does : Sailor's bed makes bad actor sneer (7)

  9. Francisco said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 1:41 pm

    Answering Barbara Phillips Long:
    'Maca' entered Portuguese via Spanish 'hamaca' ( It used to have a rather broad meaning, including as expected nautical cots, but I have never seen it used other than in the context of litters for transporting the sick or injured. A hanging hammock in modern usage would be a 'rede' (net).

  10. Victor Mair said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 4:48 pm

    From Denis Mair:

    and I shouldn't have forgotten hummock;
    I have seen these on the muskeg terrain outside of Cordova, AK: Here's a definition of "hummock":
    a piece of forested ground rising above a marsh

  11. Andreas Johansson said,

    May 16, 2022 @ 2:41 am

    Confusingly, while the Swedish for "hammock" is indeed hängmatta, we also have hammock, meaning "porch swing".

  12. S. Norman said,

    May 17, 2022 @ 1:49 pm

    Interesting. I didn't have a clew.

  13. Tyler M. said,

    May 20, 2022 @ 4:33 pm

    The New York Times crossword once clued the entry HAMMOCK as "Sailor's bed of yore"…all the way back in 1974: .

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