Leaving Cambodia, we cross Vietnam and the South China Sea and land seventeen hundred miles away in Shanghai, the largest city in China – and one of a handful of contenders for the title of largest city in the world. Given how significant a location it is, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Shanghai has found itself in the dictionary on more than one occasion. In Australian slang, for instance, a shanghai is a catapult or slingshot. To darts players, Shanghai is the name of a variant of the game in which players, armed with three darts at a time, must hit each number on the board in numerical order – with any failure to score in each round leading to immediate elimination from the game.
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But both these meanings apparently derive from an even earlier use of the place name as a verb: since the early 1900s, Shanghai has been used to mean ‘to force or constrain someone to do something against their will’. And this meaning in turn derives from an even earlier use of the name Shanghai from late-nineteenth-century nautical slang – when it referred to an even more specific, and even more nefarious, practice:
I got something to eat, and what I supposed was some coffee, but I had hardly drunk it when a stupor seized me, from which I only recovered under a bucket or two of water, which was soused over me. Then I found myself on board the ship Belvedere bound for Liverpool where we were to land sixty thousand bricks, and reload with cotton. We were told that we had shipped, and had received eighty dollars each in advance. Protest was useless, and we obeyed when we were ordered to man the windlass quickly under penalty of having our heads smashed. This was Wednesday. We could give no account of ourselves since Monday To be carried or forced on board of a ship in this manner is what is termed in sailor parlance being ‘Shanghaied\ —Samuel Samuels, From the Forecastle to the Cabin (1887)
Originally, to be shanghaied was to be drugged (or ‘otherwise rendered insensible’, according to the Oxford English Dictionary) and drafted against your will onto the crew of a vessel short of hands. Typically, by the time the unfortunate victim of the shanghaiing regained consciousness, the ship onto which he had been conscripted had already left port and had entered the open ocean; escape from your shanghaiing was all but impossible.
But why namecheck China’s largest city for quite such an ugly practice? It’s all too tempting to think the worst here: namely that disreputable sea captains in the coastal cities of China must once have been frequent users of this ploy, and that unsolicited enrolments onto ships in Shanghai must once have been a common problem in the city. In fact, it seems quite the opposite is true.
During a time of ever escalating maritime trade with the Far East in the late 1800s, the port city of Shanghai was merely among the most frequent destinations for ships leaving ports in Europe and America. Those crew members who were unscrupulously drafted onto the ships’ crews found themselves in Shanghai more often than anywhere else at the end of their nightmare journeys, having been drugged or set upon elsewhere at the start of their ordeal. (In Samuel
Samuels’ account above, for instance, he was drugged in a Baltimore boarding house.)
So it might not have been Shanghai where this tactic was most used, but it was certainly where the fruits of its labour often ended up. And that alone was certainly enough to earn the city its permanent – if not entirely welcome – place in our language.
Another version of these rules has each player given a number, which they must first score before attempting to hit other players’ numbers, and thereby eliminate them from the game. Regardless of the rules, in either version it is the sense of being unceremoniously ejected from the game that is the reasoning behind the name Shanghai.