Graveyard / Dog / Lobster Shift

The wee small hours of Where am I?

Dear Word Detective:  Please give me a definition of the term  “dog shift.”  It refers to working hours.  I have searched with no luck. — Pam.

Dear Word Detective: When I first started working at newspapers, in the mid-70s, the midnight to 8 am shift was called, not the “graveyard shift,” but the “lobster shift” or “lobster trick.” It was suggested that the name started because many of the staff would go drinking before work and come in “boiled,” but that seems like a stretch. — William Fisher.

This sudden flurry of questions having to do with work shifts is interesting.  Is there something I should know about going on with the economy?  Speaking of the terminology of employment (or the lack thereof), I heard an interview last week on NPR with someone who had been recently laid off, who noted that the equivalent to “laid off” in Britain is “made redundant,” a term which the interviewee said would make him feel less than “personally unique.”  (I did mention this was NPR, didn’t I?)   I’d actually go a bit further and say that “made redundant” has always reminded me of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”  Just don’t fall asleep and you’ll be OK.

Sleeping normal hours is out of the question, of course, if you work a “graveyard,” “lobster” or “dog” shift, all three of which are slang terms for a late night shift, usually from  midnight to 8 a.m.  I’ve never worked a graveyard shift, but I did, for several years, work a “swing” (evening) shift, so-called because such shifts often overlap both the day and night shifts and mark a metaphorical pivot point between the two.

I had never heard the term “dog shift” before, and it doesn’t seem to be very common, although it does turn up fairly frequently in the context of police work.  I was puzzled as to its derivation until I realized that it is almost certainly a modified form of “dog watch.”  This was originally (in the 18th century) a nautical term for a short period of duty “on watch” (two hours instead of the standard four).  Such “dog watches” were, however, very unpopular because they  made the sailor miss his normal dinner time.  The “dog” in “dog watch” is yet another case, one of many, of man’s best friend being used as a symbol of misfortune (e.g., “a dog’s life,” one of misery).   “Dog watch” has, since the early 20th century, been used to mean the late night shift, especially in newspaper offices (“The building shakes with the rumble of the presses; the ‘dog watch,’ detailed to duty in the event of news demanding an extra, opens its game of poker,” 1901).

“Graveyard shift,” a term that dates to the early 20th century, comes from the presumed quiet of the workplace at that hour, although many are just as noisy then as at noon.  The origin of “lobster shift” (originally “lobster trick,” “trick” being an old nautical term for duty at the helm) has been disputed almost since it first appeared in the 1940s.  The story about newspapermen arriving for their shift as florid as lobsters is certainly possible, as is the less plausible explanation that there was so little to do on the night shift that the staff dined out on   lobster and champagne in the wee hours.  But the truth, sad to say, is that “lobster” was, beginning in the 19th century, popular slang in New York City for “a fool or dupe,” probably because lobsters were considered very stupid creatures.  So “lobster shift” probably reflects the sentiment that only a fool (or an incompetent worker) would wind up working the midnight shift.

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