Malta Diary The British Royal Navy and its impact on the Maltese Language HMS DEE and HMS DON still part of today’s Maltese tongue after almost 145 years
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The French Mediterranean Fleet on its way to the Battle of the Nile toward the end of the 18th Century anchored just off Malta with General Napoleon Bonaparte in command. At the time Malta was under the reign of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, but the Order had began to weaken its strength compared to former days.
‘Bony’ requested permission to enter the Grand Harbour to replenish food and water before proceeding to Egypt. His request was refused. The French fleet sailed in anyway and stayed and in a few days the French expelled the Order for ever (as the Knights were of Royal extraction from various European Royal Families and thus totally contrary to the French Republic spirit!). Bonaparte slept overnight in Malta and created a mini-revolution, mainly in the Judicial and scholastic system. Some of his reforms remained right to the present day. For example, a Secondary Grammar School is still referred to as “Lyceum” or “Lyceo” from the French “Lycee”.
The French however were unpopular in Malta and unwanted. Over and above the Gozitans chose a committee that began conniving with Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson who at the time was anchored in nearby Naples. The French were expelled and the British Fleet entered the Grand Harbour and stayed for the next 150 years or so, Nelson taking up residence in Malta for a while to enjoy the comforts of his partner Lady Hamilton. Malta became a British ‘colony’ at the request and invitation of the Maltese.
Thus began the long association between Great Britain and Malta. What attracted Admiral Lord Nelson and the British to Malta? The islands had no natural wealth, no coal fields, no gold mines, no diamond mines – in fact, nothing at all.
HOWEVER, Malta was slap-bang at the very centre of the Mediterranean in an era when whoever commanded the waters of the Mediterranean Sea commanded the world and Malta became the home of the British Mediterranean Fleet.
In their own right, as dwellers on small Mediterranean Islands with the sea never further than a stone’s throw away and recruited by the Knights for their galleys either as sailors or convicted prisoners, the Maltese and seafaring were as thick as thieves and, naturally, they adapted to the British Mediterranean Fleet just as a duck takes to water.
Thus began a strong association that lasted 150 years when mainly (except for the latter years in the 1950s and 1960s; the British totally quit Malta in 1979) the British Royal Navy became the economic focal point of the Maltese Islands.
The association also had its effect on the Maltese Language with the incorporation of new nautical words and terms, many of them right down to the present day. Over the years thousands of Maltese joined the Royal Navy and the RN Dockyard was manned by skilled Maltese tradesmen.
My own paternal grandfather Gianni was a Chief Petty Officer in the RN, an Officers’ Chef (as distinct from a cook for the ratings) and two of his sibling brothers became Mess Men for the Mediterranean Fleet, these being the equivalent of a Purser or a Purchasing Officer, and therefore a position of high prestige as well as being a lucrative one! Indeed, one was Mess Man for the whole of the RN Mediterranean Fleet.
Granddad Gianni used to take my dad Frank on board his ship when docked in Malta and boy dad would peel the spuds and carrots in the kitchen and wash the dishes. At the onset of WWII dad Frank, then aged 18, did the unthinkable and joined the Royal Air Force rather than the Royal Navy, as an Aircraftman and later went on to be promoted to a Flight Lieutenant in the RAF, the only Maltese to have ever been promoted to RAF Officer status from RAF Malta.
Always an active and growing language with Semitic and later Arabic roots, Maltese had over the centuries expanded to incorporate a legion of Latin, Italian and French words. Very soon, words like “destroyer”, “submarine”, “dockyard”, “minesweeper” became very much a part of the language, together with many others.
Some words became corrupted to suit the Maltese tongue, one of these being “bozin” (boatswain). Maltese sailors adopted their own code to alert Maltese colleagues that an officer was on the prowl because making reference to “the Captain” or “the Commander” would of course be understood in English.
The Captain thus became “here is the one with the four stripes” (in Maltese of course), “the Commander” became “the one with the three stripes” and “a Lieutenant”, “the one with the two stripes”.
During World War II, times were hard. In 1942 Malta was under continual siege in the early months by Axis ships and submarines to prevent convoys reaching Malta. Food was scarce and intensely rationed. To help the inhabitants, the RN devised a system whereby food leftovers from Naval ships was gathered, placed in giant cauldrons and stewed. This was then distributed to the Maltese inhabitants and became known as “gush”.
In Maltese this was referred to as “gaxin” and although of course no longer existent, it is still a part of Malta’s history today.
However, perhaps the most ingenious adaptation was centred around the ships HMS Dee and HMS Don! These were two Medina-class Gunboats out of 12 ships that had been built by the Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company for the Royal Navy between 1876 and 1877. Both were launched in April of 1877.
These were powered by steam engines but were additionally equipped with masts. The gunboats were assigned to various battle areas around the world but the Dee and the Don were assigned to the Mediterranean Sea and mainly stationed in Malta. They were a pair and always together.
It became fashionable for the Maltese to describe an inseparable pair of people who were always together and complemented each other as “the Dee and the Don”. In time this became corrupted to “the Dee and the Daw” and hence the Maltese expression that is still very much alive today “qishom id-di u d-do” (they are like the di and the do – pronounced “daw”! This describes the perfect and inseparable pair.
NOTE: Many thanks to Albert Galea and with acknowledgement to “The Times of Malta”.
“His eyes are larger than his stomach”
This describes a voracious person who devours every food item in sight – even though he may not even be hungry and even though he may be over-eating. It is also used for a person who loves to commandeer everything in sight just for the sake of it.