Commentators remind us that “half-seas over” is a euphemism for “slightly intoxicated” or “mildly drunk”. Stanislaus Joyce recalls, in My Brother's Keeper (p. 35), that when his father was “half seas over”, he "had a horrible habit of grinding his strong teeth with a noise that I used to think was caused by the creaking of his stiff white collar”. Joyce’s wordplay associates “half-seas over” with “overseas”. But, as is often the case, Joyce's wordplay is creative but not strictly innovative.
The Oxford English Dictionary notes that “half-seas over” was first used in its literal sense in the sixteenth century, the century of Britain’s early sea-going expansionism. At this time it meant “halfway across the sea”, as in this early reference from the Liverpool City archives:1
The commodities […] wch ben taken and retorned againe, when they be halfe the seas over.
Later, the expression developed metaphorical meanings. As well as the simple shift of sense to “halfway towards one’s goal”, or “halfway through a matter”, the it took on what is now its only surviving meaning: “half-drunk” or “tipsy” (itself now mainly archaic or consciously historical in use). If someone was “half-seas over” they were halfway to becoming hopelessly drunk. The first reference to the expression in this sense known to the OED derives from a canting source with which Joyce was familiar: B. E.’s New Dictionary of the Canting Crew (1699). But he would not have need recourse to this to remind himself of an expression that was well-known in his day. Furthermore, more recent research shows that the phrase occurs earlier in Sir Edward Hoby’s Curry-combe for a Cox-combe of 1615:2
As God would haue it, there came into that hostelry, certaine noble Countrey men of ours, when my new fill-pot was more then halfe-seas ouer.
The expression half-seas over was therefore of some long standing in the English language. Joyce couples it humorously with overseas. This equivocation had been current since at least the late eighteenth century, in a play by John Cartwright:3
Gaoler. Ah! Mon prisonier, what fast asleep – I bring something will wake you, diable. Holloa – to make him go wid us overseas, I vill soon make him half seas over, open von, two, tree bottle, dat open his heart. Holloa! Mon prisonier.
Not one to lose an attractive wordplay, Cartwright reprised it in C. H. Wilson’s anthology The myrtle and vine (?1800), in a poem which became very popular. In Wilson’s collection it is anonymous, and called “The Carpenter”. One verse reads:4
But somehow the rhino ran taper;
For handling of other folks chink,
Over seas they have sent me to caper,
Where still half sea over I drink.
More significantly, the poem is reprinted (as “A Chip am I of the old block”) in the Universal Songster vol. 2, p. 189), and attributed to “J. C. Cross”. The volumes of the Universal Songster are a possible source for a number of Joyce’s expressions.5
The comical contrast between half-seas over and overseas continued in popular use for the rest of the nineteenth century. The World of Fashion and Continental Feuilletons (London: 1828) applied it in the world of music. Mr. Laporte managed the Italian opera at London’s King’s Theatre:6
To their credit we might mention that Laporte and his right-hand adviser, Mr. Sequin, are already overseas, (not half seas over) levying musters for next year’s [operatic] campaign.
The popular Youth’s Companion (Boston: 1894) shows that the expression was as lively as ever as the century drew to a close:7
"Dame Hepburn told me you were overseas!" "I seem to myself at least 'half-seas-over!" said her brother, with a laugh; "but I am sober, and, as you assure me, awake. Prithee explain to me the mystery."
When Fisher Unwin launched the “Over-seas Library”, at the suggestion of Edward Garnett, it was not long before the Speaker (to which Joyce contributed two poems five years later) picked up on the title:8
R. Cunningham Graham’s "The Ipane" leads out the series which Mr. Fisher Unwin calls his "Over-seas Library" […] “The aim of the 'Over-Seas Library' is purely experimental" and a beginning must be made somewhere. Let us be bold—a "Half-seas-over Library" would never do—and start with Mr. Cunninghame Graham.
Joyce refers to the “halfseasover empire”. The Empire itself knew the joke, as this report of proceedings in the British House of Commons shows. “Mr Campbell” is James Campbell, then MP for Dublin University:9
Mr. Campbell: If the words "accustomed practice" are not acceptable, I would suggest "recognised tradition."
Mr. Birrell: Of what?
Mr. Campbell: Of His Majesty's Overseas Dominions.
Mr. Birrell: "Representatives of His Majesty" would be better.
Mr. Campbell: Those are equally good words, although I do not know why the right hon. Gentleman should be so terrified about the word "Overseas". If it had been "half-seas over" I could have understood it. I am quite willing to take the words "His Majesty's representatives".
Once again we find that Joyce’s use of wordplay forms part of a longer tradition, as he records expressions that are falling out of general use and are at the same time evocative of an older era.
I am grateful to Pat Callan for drawing my attention to Stanislaus Joyce's reference in My Brother's Keeper (1958).