origin and sense development of the verb ‘shanghai’





Of American-English origin, the verb shanghai means:
– to force someone to join a ship lacking a full crew by drugging them or using other underhand means;
– and, by extension, to coerce or trick someone into a place or position or into doing something.

The allusion is to Shanghai, the name of a city and seaport on the east coast of China, because eastern Asia was often, in the 19th century, a destination of ships that had kidnapped men onboard as crew.




The earliest occurrences of shanghai that I have found seem to indicate that this verb originated in San Francisco, a city and seaport on the coast of California. The first is from the Southern Weekly Post (Raleigh, North Carolina) of Saturday 11th June 1853—however, this newspaper mentions drugging and robbing, but not kidnapping:

In San Francisco, when a man has drank drugged liquor and been robbed, they say he has been “Shanghaied.”

The second-earliest instance of the verb that I have found is from the local news section of the Daily Placer Times and Transcript (San Francisco, California) of Tuesday 16th October 1855—the exact signification of shanghai is unclear; the woman is unlikely to have been put aboard a ship by force, but she might have been drugged or abducted:

Cooney Discharged.—This notorious character was discharged yesterday. After having repeatedly beaten the woman with whom he lived, he was arrested, discharged on bail, again arrested for beating her, again discharged on bail, and finally, by the exertions of the prosecution was brought before a jury. After every quibble of our miserable law was met and set aside, lo and behold, the witness turns up missing. Whether she was bribed to keep out of the way, shanghaied, or locked up, is not known—she was certainly not forthcoming when wanted. A more ridiculous farce than the prosecution of this fellow, has never been witnessed in the Recorder’s Court.

In the following from the Daily Evening Bulletin (San Francisco, California) of Friday 22nd May 1857, shanghai clearly means to put aboard a ship by force with the help of a drug:

Disappearance of Donald McDonald.—A man by the name of Donald McDonald, who arrived in this city last Friday from the Southern mines, is said to have mysteriously disappeared on Monday last. When he arrived he stopped at the Western Hotel on Davis near Broadway street, and is said to have had a large quantity of gold and a diamond worth $800 in his possession. On Monday, according to the report of some, he disappeared, leaving his baggage at the hotel. It was suspected that he had been drugged and carried off, or, as it is vulgarly called, “Shanghaied,” on the ship Oliver Jordan, which sailed yesterday. It was suspected by others that he had been enticed into some den, like the man Hutchins a few weeks ago, and remained there. The proprietor of the Western Hotel says that McDonald, on Monday, paid his bill and left with all this baggage. It appears that the man has a brother residing in the interior of the State, to whom he was going.
It may be considered questionable, perhaps, whether the man has not gone unharmed into the interior; but still, instances have occurred in this city, in which men having money with them, have been robbed and got out of the way, by various criminal means. A few years ago, it was no uncommon thing for miners to be robbed at the sailor boarding houses, about the wharves, and put upon vessels going to sea, while drunk. Other unfortunates were garroted on the docks, and shoved overboard to find watery graves. In fact, a dead body was picked up in the bay, almost daily, and the practical application of the proverb that “dead men tell no tales” had many victims, in times gone by. The man MacDonald may have been the victim of some crime, but facts enough have not yet been elicited to say that such was the case.




The verb shanghai soon came to also mean to forcibly enlist someone into service in the army. For example, the following, from The New York Times (New York City, N.Y.) of Thursday 14th January 1864, is about the Twentieth regiment, United States colored troops:

Some twenty men belonging to it will have to be discharged on account of physical disability; six boys, who were “shanghaied,” will also have to be discharged, as they are under age, and their parents claim them.

In the following paragraph from The Daily Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) of Wednesday 23rd March 1864 occur not only the verb shanghai in the sense to forcibly enlist someone into service in the army, but also the noun shanghai clothes, apparently meaning civilian clothes, i.e., clothes of the type that the forcibly enlisted man was originally wearing:

Mrs. Mindig, who keeps a clothing store on the Levee, was up for selling a soldier a suit of citizen’s clothes on Sunday last, and for retaining possession of all the soldier’s military fixings. The woman said she did not think it was any harm to sell the clothes, and the soldier asked permission to leave his uniform and other things till he called for them next day. As for the soldier, he said that he found he could not get whiskey without a citizen’s dress, and he had procured the clothes in question for that specific purpose. He thought as he had been shanghaied into the regiment, he ought to have the privilege of using shanghai clothes when he went out to get his bitters. His case was taken under advisement, and the woman was fined $100.




The earliest figurative use of shanghai that I have found is from the Albany Evening Journal (Albany, New York) of Saturday 3rd July 1858—here, the past participle shanghaied is used as an adjective apparently meaning in a situation resembling captivity:

“I don’t wish I was never married,” said a man who was slightly shanghaied at home, “but I must confess I envy a bachelor.”

The verb shanghai means either to force or to trick in the following passage from an article about the political situation in Georgia, published in the Hartford Daily Courant (Hartford, Connecticut) of Saturday 19th September 1868:

What has Georgia done? Under the reconstruction acts, a very large vote being cast, a Republican Governor was chosen by some six or seven thousand majority. The legislature also was nominally Republican. A portion of the Democrats were ineligible, or believed to be, on account of participation in the rebellion, and a portion of the Republicans were representatives, in color as well as in opinion, of the mass of the loyal people of the state, the working men, the bone and sinew, the wealth, the patriotism of the state. The Republican majority was first “Shanghaied” into the election of doubtful men for presiding officers; then coaxed into letting the disabled rebels keep their seats. After this the Democrats had plain sailing.




The meaning of shanghai is obscure in the following from the agricultural section of the Northern Christian Advocate (Auburn, New York) of Wednesday 30th October 1861:

Management of Poultry and Eggs.—Mr. Bower keeps a few dozen choice hens for the eggs which they produce, and although he has been pretty well “shanghaied” in years past, he gives the preference to the black Polands as layers, although the Dominiques are preferred for market or for the table.

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