OMG! – the story of Admiral Fisher and his biographers

There is something about certain historical figures that draws writers. Many years ago I did an undergrad course on the intersection between history and biography where my specialist focus was Admiral Sir John Fisher, the volcanic, combatative and controversial head of the Royal Navy during the ‘naval race’ that led up to the First World War. An extraordinary character whose nature was endlessly fascinating. Later I wrote an honours dissertation on Fisher, before going on to higher degrees.

In my professional work since I’ve written biographies of Sir Donald Mclean – the dour, pious, God-fearing land buyer whose legacy continues in New Zealand to this day through claims against his practises, 150-plus years on. I’ve written two biographies of Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg: one a military analysis, the other a character biography (you can buy it here). I have never returned, however, to Fisher. It’s an omission I need to fix.

John Fisher as a Captain in the 1880s. This photo inspired Jan Morris to write the biography ‘Fisher’s Face’.

We’re talking here about a technophile who considered himself Britain’s second Nelson, a master at public relations whose twist on events continues to shape the way history is written, a man who wrote in block capitals and underlinings, his letters spattered with Biblical quotes and coined acronyms; who pursued vendettas beyond the point of reason; who could ruin careers with a stroke of the pen. His favourites – the ‘Fishpond’ – became the officers who led the Royal Navy at sea during the First World War. And he ended his naval career with an explosive letter, penned on 17 May 1915, to Andrew Bonar-Law, then leader of the Opposition:

“The P.M. will stick at nothing to keep W.C. (Churchill) I’M A DEAD DOG! I CEASED WORK LAST FRIDAY NIGHT. W.C. IS LEADING THEM ALL STRAIGHT TO RUIN…”

 Four days later he left the Admiralty forever, later telling his wife: “NOTHING WILL EVER INDUCE ME TO GO TO LONDON UNTIL THE WAR IS OVER,” (again his emphasis). He was still fuming at his defeat in September 1917 when he discovered a new honour had been created. That spurred a letter to Churchill: ‘O.M.G. (Oh! My God!) Shower it on the Admiralty!!’ While it may well have been reinvented later, Fisher certainly coined OMG for himself, and the letter – published later in his autobiography – is the first known use in English.

Biographers have been fascinated by this extraordinary Admiral – a man at the heart of the Royal Navy in the age of social militarism, when Admirals were revered like rock stars and the wider sweep of history cannot be explained without integral reference to matters military. The breadth of Fisher’s life and influence has only barely been explored. Jan Morris’ classic Fisher’s Face riffed on the character. Ruddock Mackay’s magisterial Fisher of Kilverstone (Oxford, 1973) remains the only biography to really exploit the 6000-plus items in the Fisher papers. Fisher’s story has also been entwined with that of wider history, initially by Arthur Marder, a view later historians have re-cast in light of new data and lines of enquiry.

I recently located my honours dissertation. Youthful stuff now, of course, but I am wondering about writing something new about this extraordinary man.

Who’d like to see a book on him?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2022


7 thoughts on “OMG! – the story of Admiral Fisher and his biographers

  1. -blinks- so /he/ coined the OMG? I think that was the first acronym I ever learned. Actually, correction, it was the first acronym I consciously learned. Just did a quick search and discovered that many words I thought were ‘names’ are actually acronyms – like SCUBA. Who knew? lol

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    1. He did – in 1917, in a letter to Churchill. Fisher later published it in his ‘dada-esque’ autobiography of 1919, of which I have a copy in original edition (it’s a truly weird book, a total train-of-thought burble that tells us much more about Fisher’s thought processes than he perhaps wanted readers to know). I suspect, from what I know of how English evolves, that OMG was reinvented later. Still, Fisher’s was the first known use of it as an acronym.

      That issue of acronyms becoming words always fascinates me – a curious evolution as English has struggled to handle technical and other developments – sonar, radar, laser, Anzac, scuba, etc. Anzac came out of a rubber stamp that a specific officer in Cairo had made in late 1914, with those initials because he was tired of writing out ‘Australia and New Zealand Army Corps’ in full every time. I keep wondering what would have happened had the original name of that corps been kept – initial proposals reversed the two Dominions. New Zealand and Australia Army Corps. NZAAC for short. Sounds like a ‘cough-sneeze’.

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      1. LMAO!!!!! Totally laughing out loud, Matthew! If you ever get sick of history, I think you might just make it in comedy. 😀
        More seriously though, I’m pretty sure it was the online gaming community that reinvented OMG as I’m sure I learned it long before smartphones and SMS – gawd, there’s another one – made abbreviating everything a necessity.
        And then, of course, there’s the Aussie penchant for shortening every possible in speech as well. It was something I discovered about myself when I started gaming – I was asking every player I came into contact with if they’d mind my using a nickname for them because…their online handle was TOO LONG. -cough- Cultural laziness perhaps?

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        1. I did actually write a comedy history once. Years ago Penguin asked me to write an ‘alternate history’ of New Zealand, which was all the rage just then. I figured it would work best as comedy and filled it with what (to me) was obvious silliness, such as scenario in which Drake actually obeys orders and thus accidentally brings llama to New Zealand in 1578, or a steam-driven land speed record car in 1930 (riffing off the Aussie driver Norman ‘Wizard’ Smith’s real-life adventures in NZ) etc. Nobody got the joke, except the reviewer for the community newspaper in the Auckland suburb of Howick.

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            1. It was published by Penguin in 2007 – they’d commissioned it. The problem was that none of the reviewers got the joke. Actually Penguin’s production editor didn’t either, I refused to work with her again (and she left Penguin soon after, so I can’t have been the only one.)

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              1. Oh! Well at least it did get published.
                I’ve noticed that Australian and Kiwi humour is ‘different’ and other English speakers don’t always get it. I’ve learned to keep my own humour in check online until people get to know me a bit. They simply don’t understand that teasing is a sign of affection. -sigh-

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