Language by Sea
By Margaret Graham Neeson, 91 years young, Marine Parts Express
There is, without a doubt, something pretty fascinating about sea language.
For instance, look at all the writers who have written about nautical terminology and compiled their own lists of nautical terms: Shay, Russell, Colcord, Patridge, Hugill, Bradford. And, gazing more closely, back in 1958, the Skipper magazine took the first America’s Cup Race in twenty-one years as a fair excuse for publishing their list of 169 nautical terms.
This list was terribly good, of course (far be it from us to bite the hand that use to feed us), and ranged all the way from such old-timers as top hamper to such comparative newcomers as greta garbo and hour glass.
Not content with that, in 1962, when the Australians were in the great race and The Skipper put out the souvenir program, it came up with some fine, salty Down Under phrases. Our favorites were bottler, fist-class, top; capture the pickled biscuit, to win; donkoff, to get under way; and iffey and kick, meaning, respectively, uncertain or chancy, and tack.
Frank Shay says that sea language is made up of “slang and cant and a little profanity” and is taken from all sorts of mariners, such as whalers, navy men, fishermen. Joanna Colcord calls it “an old dialect” descended from Anglo-Saxon and Norman, with borrowings from Dutch and German. Still another writer we once read pointed out that such calls as port your helm were short and explicit and especially useful for shouting over the sound of wind, waves, and rigging.
Yes, sea language, whether new or old (and it has changed surprisingly little over the years), is specific, descriptive, and colorful, offering to the lover of words, and to the lover of boats, a never-ending source of interest and fascination.
But sea language can also be pretty funny.
It can be funny when it’s misused by the neophyte or by the would-be old salt or by the man with an ax to grind. And it can be really hilarious when parodied by the clever writer. Because, for every writer that has written seriously about sea language, there is another who has got his pleasure out of poking fun at it.
Sometimes, reasonably enough, this type of writer gets his biggest kicks at boat shows. For example, the unnamed writer who published a “Pocket Boat Show Webster” in the New York Herald-Tribune last winter. His was an effort “to define and, where necessary, to translate some of the boating publicists’ more widely used words and phrases.”
Here are just a few of his better ones:
Aquamatic, water with the power of action; eight sleeper, overnight guests draw lots for the cockpit cushions; finger-tip control, wrestling experience a requisite; fly bridge, a bridge of lies; maintenance free, ha-ha-ha; trouble-free, no charge for it, comes with the item; and whispering power, engine has laryngitis.
But one of the funniest writers of them all, when it comes to taking sea language apart, is Syd Hoff, whose book ’Twixt the Cup and the Lipton was published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1962 but which we have just read.
Mr. Hoff, cartoonist and writer, is obviously a man who knows bout boats. It’s less certain whether he actually went through all the joys and pains he describes so amusingly; whether he really began with a small motor boat, went on to a sailboat, tried next a sailing auxiliary, and ended up with a houseboat; whether he in fact attended Power Squadron courses, learned how to water ski and skin dive, and joined a heavy-drinking yacht club. We don’t know if all this is true, but it might be, and it doesn’t matter anyway, for Mr. Hoff is a very funny man.
He has a good ear for turning a sea term upside down.
“‘Welcome abroad,’ said Harvey.
“‘A-board,’ corrected his wife.
“‘Damn those nautical terms,’ he grunted.” Later on, Harvey orders everyone to “button down the hatches” and to watch out for “flotsam and jasmine.”
Hoff is also adept at needling the commercial approach:
“Wave Your Worries Goodbye in a Boat that Absorbs Vibrational sound, Thanks to the Foam-Filled Double Bottom.”
And the education approach:
“‘I guess we’ve learned everything,’ said Alice. ‘Not to allow fuel to leak or spill. Be careful not to cause explosions. Keep it clean—the boat, that is. Label all fill pipes: Fuel. Never overload the circuits. Tank vent-lines must lead to the outside of the hull and be kept closed at all times.’
“‘Open,’ her husband said.
“‘Oh, yes. Open,’ said Alice.”
Mr. Hoff also has a “partial list of sea terms”: amidships, Annapolis student; batten, advertising executive for B.B.D. & O.; burgee, with or without onions; breasthook, bra attachment; helm, a kind of tree; keelson, Murder, Inc.; starboard, a guest who never goes home; poop, real tired.
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March 30, 2010 / JD Neeson / 1
Tags: America's Cup, bottler, breasthook, burgee, donkoff, iffey, keelson, Margaret Graham Neeson, Marine Parts Express, nautical terminology, nautical terms, New York Herald-Tribune, pickled biscuit, port your helm, sea language, Syd Hoff, The Skipper
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