Under a Tree

Who could possibly confuse Admiral Lord Nelson, of the Battle of Trafalgar, with Spike Milligan, of The Goon Show? Well, the quagmire of quote attribution doth make fools of us all, as someone (ahem) may have said.

“A sure cure for seasickness is to sit under a tree.”
Attributed to Lord Nelson (1758 – 1805)
and to Spike Milligan (1918 – 2002)

It shouldn’t be difficult to sort out this confusion, given that Nelson died 103 years before Milligan was born. They weren’t contemporaries, nor in the same line of work. But apparently it’s not that simple, or ‘twould already have been done.

And it gets worse: It’s unclear what was meant, no matter who said it. Is it a rueful observation on the difficulty of accessing a cure, in the moment: on the sad inevitability of seasickness, literally and figuratively? Is it a pointed observation on the importance of avoiding trouble, or a bracing observation along the lines of “Nothing ventured, nothing gained”?

And it gets worser: It’s unclear who said it; it’s unclear what was meant by what was said; it’s also unclear precisely what was said. Without much effort, I found the variant above, and these two:

  • The only sure cure for seasickness is to sit under a tree.
  • The best cure for seasickness is to sit under a tree.

A sure cure, the only sure cure, the best cure: Differences worth bothering about?

It seems so to me.

A “sure cure” points out what should be obvious (albeit not always possible at that exact moment) and applies both literally and figuratively: If doing something makes you sick, stop doing it. Subtext: What kind of idiot doesn’t stop banging their head against the wall?

The “only sure cure” adds a disparagement of all other suggested remedies. Subtext: What kind of idiot would try all those ridiculous suggestions instead of the obvious one? Or, indeed, instead of just accepting the inevitable?

The “best cure” adds the “No pain, no gain” message popularized by Jane Fonda in the 1980s. Subtext: What kind of wuss would avoid sailing to avoid seasickness?

I don’t know whether Nelson or Milligan were careful communicators for their respective days, but for today’s days I have some modest proposals to address the possible communication intentions here, subtexts aside.

A sure cure? If going to sea makes you seasick, then stay on land.

The only sure cure? If going to sea makes you seasick, forget any other purported remedy, and just stay on land.

The best cure? If going to sea makes you seasick, forget any other purported remedy and consider only whether the benefit is worth the cost.  If not, then stay on land.

Now, Horatio (or Spike): Was that so hard?












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8 Responses to Under a Tree

  1. Tom Watson says:

    I have never been seasick. Or even close. But I remember when, in 1967, we moved from Ottawa to St. John’s, Newfoundland. Went, overnight, from North Sydney to Port aux Basques on the old Carson ferry. Pretty rough seas going into Port aux Basques in the morning.
    When we went down for breakfast the cereal bowl would skid a couple of inches one way, and then back the other, as the ferry headed into either a crest or a trough. The third time of that and Janice said, “I don’t need any breakfast!” and promptly retired to the state room, with two of the three girls in tow.

    If there had been a tree to sit under right then, she might have opted for it.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – I have been seasick on small boats, as well as just a bit woozy on large ones, and would have happily joined Janice under that tree.

  2. Ian Hepher says:

    Hmm…this put me in mind of some lines of poetry, dimly remembered as being by Robert Service, but it turns out, from the pen of William Henry Drummond. From “The Wreck of the Julie Plante”

    “De win’ can blow lak hurricane
    An’ s’pose she blow some more,
    You can’t get drown on Lac St. Pierre
    So long you stay on shore.”

    Once again, Wikipedia trumps memory.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Ian – Yes, Wikipedia doth make fools of us all, as well. Thanks for this. I’d never encountered it before and see exactly why it came to mind.

  3. Jim Taylor says:

    Ballet dancers doing pirouettes and victims of seasickness share a common remedy (and it’s not sitting under a tree); you learn to keep your eyes on a fixed point. For dancers, a feature of the stage or hall; for seasickness victims, the horizon. I’m sure there’s a message there, too.
    I think of seasickness as a little like giving birth (which I immediately admit I have not personally experienced). There’s a period of agony, when you’d rather die, and then enormous relief when you find you can enjoy life again. Risky analogy, I realize….
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – On a boat/ship, it also seems to be necessary to keep one’s centre of gravity low. The closer one gets to the surface that’s moving, the less distressing. But yes, I guess few have died of seasickness, although many may have wanted to. Whether that analogizes well to childbirth in general, I don’t know. Not in my experience.

  4. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – Being me, I look at Admiral Lord Nelson’s famous statement on seasickness in a more literal sense. In addition to being a great admiral, Nelson was famous for suffering from seasickness every time he put to sea.

    Before the age of cruise ships, i.e. back in Nelson’s day, having a tree on board ship large enough to sit under would have been next to impossible. Therefore, if you were sitting under a tree you were on land, which is a sure and certain cure for seasickness any way you look at it.
    John W

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – It could be as you say. I didn’t know that about Nelson. None of his statues show him throwing up over the railing . . .

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