I don't understand this sentence. What is "court aft"? What is that afterthought, highlighted in italics, for? Wells's short story The Empire of the Ants

A certain liberal heathen deity, in the shape of a demi-john, held seductive court aft, and, it is probable, forward.

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    I have voted to reopen this, as the question seems perfectly answerable, to me. As it is currently closed, I can't answer properly, but I will do so here. Court aft is not a phrase. Aft is an adverb of place, used almost exclusively in a nautical context, and means in the direction of the rear of a ship or boat, as opposed to forward. . Hold court is what a ruler does, and figuratively refers to somebody being the centre of a gathering, surrounded by admirers or hangers on. But the whole passage is allusive: the "liberal heathen deity" is alcohol.
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 8, 2022 at 3:27
  • That sounds right. I wonder why he would have added "and, it is probable, forward." Oct 8, 2022 at 5:57
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    @JackO'Flaherty - If the scene is aboard a ship, the narrator suspects that the crew (whose quarters would be in the forward part of the vessel) are drinking as well as the passengers in the stern. Oct 8, 2022 at 7:53
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    @ColinFine I agree, and have voted to reopen. This was enough to do it and you can now do the honours and convert your comment into an answer. Oct 8, 2022 at 10:23
  • @KateBunting that doesn't explain that comma after "aft", though Oct 8, 2022 at 18:00

2 Answers 2


As Colin Fine indicated, the language here is metaphorical. The “deity” is alcoholic drink (as indicated by a demi-john, a large jug once frequently used to hold liquor). “To hold court” refers here to the court of a sovereign or deity. In short, liquor ruled.

The “aft” and “forward” refer to the rear and front of a ship or boat respectively. In sailing ships, crew were housed in the front, “before the mast,” whereas officers and important passengers were housed at the rear.

The implication is that the officers were definitely drunk and the crew likely were as well.


Strange phrasing but “aft” and “forward” are the back part and the front part of a ship. Metaphorically, “aft and forward” could mean “everywhere”.

“To hold court” means literally for a judge to conduct a court of law, but metaphorically it means to act as the principal discussant or center of attention in an informal gathering. A socialite might “hold court” in a popular restaurant.

If you write, “to hold seductive court aft and forward”, it means... that you have totally lost control of your sentence and are now mixing metaphors like they are goldfish in a blender.

  • No, the meaning of to hold court doesn't fit with a legal court It is surely a royal court. And while aft and forward could mean anywhere, the afterthought character of and forward clearly means more than that, as suggested by Jeff Morrow.
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 9, 2022 at 4:59
  • @ColinFine — the casual atmosphere a social setting where someone might “hold court” comports more with my idea of a Medieval monarch than a court of law, but the phrase is used in places that have never known royalty. Jeff’s theory that “aft” was tied up with aristocracy and the officer class might be accurate to Age of Sail ship-layouts and distantly connect with “court”, I think it’s a stretch to think most readers would take “aft” to mean “where the officers and senior personnel are stationed”. Oct 11, 2022 at 0:29
  • Actually, I have no idea which specific social groups are denoted here by aft and forward. But if hold court is used in places that have never known royalty, so what? Are you suggesting that for that reason it does have something to do with a court of law?
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 11, 2022 at 5:08

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