Next> | <Prev | ^ToC | End

Waiting for Daylight,
H. M. Tomlinson, 1922


Sailor Language

February 1, 1919. "What's in a word? asks Admiral W. H. Smyth, with ironic intent, in his Sailors' Word Book. There are people who are derided because they are inclined to hesitate over that unimportant doubt, selecting their words with a waste of time which is grievous, when the real value of the sovereign is but nine-and-nine-pence, in an uneconomic desire to be as right as their knowledge will allow. There is something to be said for them. There is a case to be made for getting a task finished as well as one knows how, if interest in it was sufficient to prompt a beginning. A friend of mine, who could write a thousand interesting and popular words about an event, or even about nothing in particular, while I was still wondering what I ought to do with it, once exclaimed in indignation and contempt when I put in a plea for Roget and his Thesaurus. He declared that a writer who used such a reference-book ought to be deprived of his paper and ink. He never used even a dictionary. His argument and the force of it humbled me, for I gathered that when he wrote he had but to put his hand in his pocket and pull out all the words he wanted by the fistful. I envy him. I wish I could do it, but there are times when every word I try seems opaque. It is useless to pretend that Roget is of material assistance then; for what remedy is there under heaven for the slow and heavy mind? But to me Roget is full of amusing suggestions, which would really have been very helpful to me had I wanted to use his words for any other purpose than the one in hand. It is true he rarely gives you the word you think you want, but not seldom in his assorted heaps of unused ornaments you are surprised by a glance of colour from an unsuspected facet of a common word.

The Sailors' Word Book is no pamphlet; not in the least the kind of pocket book which once helped hurried British soldiers in a French shop to get fried eggs. It weighs, I should think, seven pounds, and it is packed with the vocabulary which has been built into the British ship during the thousand years and more of her growth. The origin of very many of the words retires, often beyond exact definition, into the cold mists of the prehistoric Baltic, and to the Greek Islands, among the shadows of the men who first found the courage to lose sight of the hills. Commonly they are short words, smoothed by constant use till they might be imagined to be born of the circumstances in which they are known, like the gulls and the foam of the wake. They carry like detonations in a gale. Yet quite often such words, when they are verbs, were once of the common stock of the language, as in the case of "belay," and it has happened that the sailor alone has been left to keep them alive. Dr. Johnson seems not to have known the meaning of the verb "to belay," among the other things he did not know but was very violent about. He thought it was a sea-phrase for splicing a rope, just as he supposed "main-sheet" was the largest sail of a ship.

The Sailors' Word Book would be much more interesting than it is, though greatly heavier, if the derivation of the words were given, or even guessed at, a method which frequently makes the livelier story. We begin to understand what a long voyage our ship has come when we are told that "starboard" is steer-board, the side to which the steering-paddle was made fast before the modern rudder was invented in the fourteenth century. Skeat informs us that both steor and bord are Anglo-Saxon in fact, the latter word is the same in all the Celtic and Teutonic languages, so was used by those who first cut trees in Western Europe, and perhaps was here before they arrived to make our civilization what we know it.

The opposite to starboard was larboard; but for good reason the Admiralty substituted port for larboard in 1844. Why was the left side of a ship called the port side? That term was in use before the Admiralty adopted it. It has been suggested that, as the steering-paddle was on the right side of a ship, it was good seamanship to have the harbour or port on the left hand when piloting inwards. But it is doubtful if that reason was devised by a sailor.

A few words in sea life--as fish, mere, and row--are said to be so old that the philologists refer them to the Aryans, or, as others might say, give them up as a bad job. These words appear to be common to all the sons of Adam who preferred adventurous change to security in monotony, and so signed on as slaves to a galley. Anchor we imported from the Greeks--it is declared to be the oldest word from the Mediterranean in the language of our ships; admiral from the Arabs, and hammock and hurricane from the Caribs, through the Spaniards. But other words of our seamen are as native to us as our grey weather, for we brought them with other habits overseas from the North--words like hail, storm, sea, ship, sail, strand, cliff, shower, mast, and flood.

To examine words in this manner is simply to invite trouble, as did the man who assumed that "bending a sail" was done as one would bend a cane, not knowing that the sailor uses that word in the original sense of "fastening." Once, in my ignorance, I imagined "schooner" was of Dutch origin, but was careful to refer to the invaluable Skeat. Only just in time, though. And he says that the word was born on the Clyde, grew up in New England, migrated to Holland, and then came back to us again. Once upon a time (1713), at Gloucester, Massachusetts, a man was witnessing a new fore-and-aft rigged vessel glide away on a trial trip, and exclaimed "She scoons!" So all her kind were christened. Science of that kind is almost as good as romance.

^Top | Next>