‘roaring forties’: literal and figurative meanings



The nautical phrase roaring forties denotes:
– stormy ocean tracts that occur between latitudes 40° and 50° south, where the prevailing wind blows strongly from the west, unimpeded by continental land masses;
– the part of the Atlantic Ocean between 40° and 50° north latitude, where stormy tracts occur.

The earliest occurrences of the phrase roaring forties that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From To the Masters and Owners of Ships and Vessels Trading from England to New South Wales, by Thomas Woore, R. N., published in The Sydney Herald (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia) of Monday 26th December 1836 and in The Australian (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia) of Friday 30th December 1836:

As far as the weather is concerned, experience has taught us that the higher the latitude we go into in the southern hemisphere, (not exceeding seventy degrees) the more certain we are of steady westerly gales—and most of us have felt the inconvenience of the unsettled winds in the Roaring Forty’s, as that parallel between forty and fifty degrees has been nicknamed.

2-: From The British Colonies Considered as Military Posts, by Lieutenant-Colonel Wilkie, published in The United Service Journal and Naval and Military Magazine (London: Henry Colburn) of September 1841:

Van Dieman’s Land is in extent about equal to Ireland; and in its relative situation, divided by Bass’ Straits from the mainland of Australia, there is a sort of analogy with Great Britain and the continent of Europe. It is, as well as the most southerly of the New Zealand islands, without the pale I have assigned to dry climates; they come within the limits of what the sailors call “the roaring forties,” (40° of latitude), which always furnish a larger share of both wind and rain.

3-: From a correspondence entitled Steam Communication with England, by ‘an Australian Mariner’, published in The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia) of Saturday 5th February 1848:

Captain Hoseason, with his strong well-found vessel, on leaving the Cape would immediately run up into the “roaring forties”—in search of the strongest westerly winds, and the strongest set of the sea. Perhaps he knew, or perhaps he did not know, that a few degrees to the northward he would have found light land winds and smooth water at the edge of, or in, the “Great Australian Bight,” which is now set up as such a bugbear.

4-: From A Treatise on Physical Geography, comprising Hydrology, Geognosy, Geology, Meteorology, Botany, Zoology, and Anthropology (New York: Mark H. Newman & Co., 1850), by A. Barrington, edited by Charles Burdett:

Between the tropics the trade-winds blow steadily, but beyond these the winds are very variable; and the North Atlantic is very subject to storms, particularly between the meridians of 40° and 50° W. long. Hence navigators style this part of the Western Ocean “the roaring forties.”




1-: Very early, the phrase roaring forties came to be humorously applied to the fifth decade of life, especially regarded as a period of vigour and activity. The earliest occurrence that I have found is from Mrs. Linchpin’s Friend, published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (New York: Harper & Brothers) of September 1867:

Mrs. Linchpin was a very pretty woman, whose bark of life had not as yet drifted into the “roaring forties.”

2-: The phrase roaring forties denotes the 1840s in the following from Personal Items, published in The Bulletin (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia) of Saturday 1st September 1888:

Mr. Alexander Fraser, who died in Melbourne, last week, was not exactly an Adonis. In the roaring forties he had the reputation of being the—well, “plainest” man in Australia, but the title slipped away from him years ago, and of late the old gentleman quite passed muster in a crowd of “representative citizens” and C.M.G’s. *

* C.M.G. is the abbreviation of Companion (of the Order) of St Michael and St George.

In the following from An Australian in Ceylon. “Lipton’s” The Tea Australia Drinks, by Albert Dorrington, published in Australia (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia) of Thursday 20th June 1907, Albert Dorrington contrasted the 1840s in Victoria and New South Wales with the 1850s in California:

It has been said repeatedly that tea has played an important part in Australian pioneering work. The man with a settled determination to open new country and begin his fight with the relentless forces of nature was in nine cases out of ten a sober man. His camp fire was his hearth, his only beverage a billy of tea.
Between the roaring forties of California and the roaring fifties of Victoria and New South Wales there was a marked difference in the roar. The Californian was a man of many whiskies and hasty temper; the lynching rope and revolver played an important part in his life. Whisky was no doubt responsible for some of his red days, environment and pressure of circumstance egged him on to many a lynching festival.
By the tea-drinking Australian digger the revolver was never much in demand. His camp fire was usually a place where sober men foregathered. Even to-day the hardiest men in Australia are big tea drinkers.

3-: The phrase roaring forties denotes the stretch of Broadway through Times Square, in New York City, USA. The following explanations are from The Omaha Daily Bee (Omaha, Nebraska) of Sunday 10th July 1921:

The term “roaring forties” may not mean anything to Chicagoans, San Franciscans, Seattleites, or St. Louisans, but it does mean plenty to New Yorkers. For those not wise, like Gothamites, we’ll state that the “roaring forties” start at Fortieth street and extend northward on Broadway to Fiftieth street.

And the following explanations are from the Houston Post-Dispatch (Houston, Texas) of Friday 18th June 1926:

The night life of any great city is interesting, that of New York city especially so since its famous night clubs have come to be the thing. And that section where they hold away has been aptly termed, “the roaring forties,” as most of them are housed in the forties, just above Times Square.

The earliest occurrence that I have found of roaring forties used in this sense is from The Evening Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) of Wednesday 1st January 1913:

New York Greets 1913 With Old-Time Whoop And Bang—Sane Only In Theory.
[From the New York World.]

Nineteen-thirteen was ushered in […].
The joyous citizens […] spent cheerfully a whole lot more money than ever before on theatres, thanks to the keen-sightedness of the managers. When the unusually large demand for seats became known in the afternoon there was a sudden raise in prices.
The increased prices were one new feature of the noisy festival night. Another was a “sliding scale” of rates which prevailed in a lot of the hotels and cafes on Broadway and in the Roaring Forties.

The phrase also occurs, for example, in the following from The Fall of a Nation: A Story of the Conquest of America, by the U.S. novelist and playwright Thomas Dixon (1864-1946), published in The Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago, Illinois, USA) of Sunday 12th December 1915:

Returning to the cab he called to his driver: “Go back to Times Square and drop me at the Times Building—quick.”
The cab was sweeping through the roaring Forties of Broadway and the orgies within the cafes were at their height. The shouts and songs and drunken calls, the clash of dishes, the pop of corks and twang and blare of music poured through the open windows.

4-: In nautical slang, the phrase roaring forties denotes naval commanders aged between 40 and 50 who ‘roar’ commands. This was recorded in Sea slang of the Twentieth Century: Royal Navy, Merchant Navy, Yachtsmen, Fishermen, Bargemen, Canalmen, Miscellaneous (London: Winchester Publications Limited, 1949), by Wilfred Granville, with introduction and etymologies by Eric Partridge:

roaring forties. The rough seas in latitude 40°–50° N. Hence, a slang name for those taut-handed Lieutenant-Commanders in their forties who are always ‘roaring up’ the hands.

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