Sunday, February 18, 2018

Seafaring Jargon

November 20, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

jargon 1

Have you ever wondered why a vessel’s toilet is a head, and instead of turning left or right on the water, you’ll turn port or starboard? Such seafaring terms are almost exclusively used as part of the language we speak on the sea, but the language of long-gone sailors migrated inland, coloring our language and enriching the way we communicate, from describing those who carouse to relating that we’re feeling fit and healthy.

jargon 2Being three sheets to the wind is a sailing term which has entered common parlance to describe an inebriated person. However, if you listen to the crew of a sailing yacht that has just come in from a successful regatta, you’ll also likely hear talk of “splicing the mainbrace until we’re three sheets to the wind.”  According to Captain Tony Arrow, who runs the sailing school vessel Geronimo for St. Georges School Rhode Island, the phrase evolved within a sailing context before entering everyday usage.“The practice of splicing the mainbrace means to issue the entire crew a ration of spirits as a reward for some notable achievement,” he explains. “The actual act of splicing the mainbrace is to execute a difficult repair on one of the crucial maneuvering lines aboard a square-rigged vessel.  If in battle the mainbrace is parted, or ripped apart, the vessel becomes very vulnerable to vessels with maneuverable rigging.  To splice the mainbrace was difficult, and if done rapidly, put the vessel back in able combat action.  Therefore, worthy of reward.”

Arrow continues, “Sheets — the lines that control the sail’s angle to the wind — must be controlled and secure to work properly.  A sheet to the wind is an unfastened line, allowing the sail to flap violently in the wind.  A vessel with three sheets to the wind would be potentially dangerous, sloppy, and out of control.” And that’s an accurate description of people we’ve seen who drink too much — sloppy, dangerous, and out of control!

Being drunk on duty however was to face the cat o’ nine tails, a phrase used to describe punishment today. But did you know that the phrase for telling a secret, letting the cat out of the bag, also stems from the days of sail? Naval historian Peter Stanford says that this phrase “refers to taking the cat o’ nine tails out of the canvas bag in which it is carried, thus announcing that punishment has been ordered and is about to be delivered.” If you break someone’s confidence you risk a severe tongue lashing these days, though in the days of sail it was far more brutal.

And what if you’ve let that cat out of the bag while discussing some office scuttlebutt? Stanford explains that this was “a common word for seamen’s gossip, derived from the cask (or butt) around which the crew gathers to scoop up a drink of water through a small hole (or scuttle) in the cask top, a common place for exchanging information.”

jargon 3If you’re fit and healthy you might be referred to as having a clean bill of health. “Ships arriving from foreign ports must clear port health authorities who will certify that no landing passengers or crew have infectious diseases; individuals having such diseases are put in quarantine ashore to avoid infecting the general population,” says Stanford.

So what of the curious words most of us just use on our boats, such as head? There’s a drinking component there, too. (Drinking hard spirits allowed sailors to weather the hardships of life at sea.) After a run ashore the booze-filled sailors might have a lot to eliminate the next morning. “Prior to interior plumbing systems aboard water craft, the problematic issue of human waste disposal was solved by simply going over the side,” says Arrow. “The most practical place for this process was up in the bow, or head of the vessel.  The rigging in the vessel’s head was extensive, giving a good place to hold on and brace while performing this delicate task.  Add the benefit of an area that was regularly flushed with water and you have an ideal solution to this challenge.”

Port has nothing to do with the Portuguese wine many sailors favored. Starboard and port were Viking terms, explains Arrow. “The Vikings were some of the earliest and most intrepid of ocean going explorers.  Their development of nautical skills, and ability as conquerors, ensured that many of their precedents in seamanship were passed on to much of Europe, and subsequently the world.  The steering oar, or styrbord, on a Viking vessel was placed on the right side of the vessel.  Styrbord eventually became starboard.”

And what about port? That’s a bit more convoluted, according to Arrow. “As the steering oar was on the right side of the vessel, the standard docking plan would lay the opposite side to land, so as not to crush the steering oar.  This was the side from which supplies and cargo were loaded. There is conjecture that the term ladebord meant loading side.” He elaborates, “Whether true or not, ladebord was the left side of the vessel and eventually became larboard.  The frustration and danger of having two very similar sounding terms for different sides of the vessel inspired the use of the word port for the side tied up to the actual port on land.”

By Richard Shrubb


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