March 9, 2020

by Ross Laird

The Resonance of Nautical Language

The Curious Lore and Etymology of Maritime Words

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Rigging on the deck of a traditional vessel. Many echoes come down to us from the age of sail, and these echoes persist in language that we use on boats today.

In 2003, paleoanthropologists digging on the island of Flores (about 550 km west of Bali) discovered a previously unknown and now extinct branch of the human genetic tree: Homo floresiensis, diminutive humans whose full-grown stature was perhaps that of a three-year-old child. This discovery has shaken the foundations of anthropology on several fronts, not least of which involves the question of how the archaic inhabitants of Flores island arrived there. After all, the earliest remains date back as far as 95,000 BCE, before boats were thought to have been devised. Even the most accomplished swimmers would have been hard-pressed to cross the 20 km of open ocean that separates Flores from its nearest neighboring island.

Michael Morwood, co-director of the Flores dig, has theorized that H. floresiensis was capable of constructing rafts or rudimentary canoes. This, in turn, would have required the collaborative use of language. The shipwrights of that ancient era would have had to consult with each other on many aspects of raft design and testing. They would have carried out rudimentary experiments on buoyancy and currents and loading. They would have developed words equivalent to paddle, pontoon, and rope. Indeed, the development of language among the members of H. floresiensis most likely paralleled the linguistic evolution within our own sub-species, Homo Sapiens. Language, and therefore co-operation and community, was the means by which our cultures spread. Nautical language – the argot of the sea – was instrumental in our passage across the world.

In the ancient migrations of humans of all types, small groups like H. floresiensis have consistently and reliably made their way across wide stretches of open ocean. Seafaring and language are thus aspects of the same continuum; they are entwined, spliced into each other. Language enabled seafaring, and seafaring enabled the spread of human society.

Today we don’t give much thought to nautical language, or to the question of how our ancestors arrived in whatever part of the world we call home. We forget that the history of ancient human migration is not primarily of land passages but of sea journeys. We don’t notice that our anatomy – the architecture of our tracheae, our relative hairlessness, our fat distribution, the simple fact that we are the only primate capable of holding our breath – suggests a primary evolutionary relationship with the aquatic environment. Many of our adaptations imply that we are, at heart, creatures of the sea.

And like whales, whose evolutionary track indicates that they were once wolf-like animals who eventually returned to the sea, we are dependent upon the peculiarities of verbal communication for our survival. But whereas whales use songs to converse, we use words. Millions of them, in our various languages (almost a million words in English alone, while French has fewer than 100,000). In English, the majority of words have been borrowed from other languages: Latin, Greek, French, German, Arabic. And since the fifth century, when Old English was first spoken by Anglo-Saxon tribes — when a few thousand words was the entire lexicon — English has spread in much the same way as our ancestors: slowly, implacably, drifting, navigating across the seas and into every place.

Many English words of nautical usage are archaic in origin, and have been adapted from the languages of old seafaring nations: Norse (raft, bait, sky), Norwegian (rig, fjord, iceberg), Catalan (cachalot, capsize), Cornish (gull, puffin). Dutch, in particular, has provided many nautical terms: ahoy, amidships, avast, ballast, block, boom, cruise, deck, dock, freight, halibut, kipper, maelstrom, pump, skipper, splice, trawl, and yacht.

Originally, yacht meant to hunt, and is a word with roots both in Norwegian and German. The word pacific derives from a Latin word meaning peace. The name of this magazine, therefore, refers to the somewhat paradoxical pursuit of peaceful hunting.

Many technical terms and names of modern sailing are also derivative of earlier usages and foreign tongues. The word spinnaker, for example, was first used in print in 1865, in the Yachting Calendar Review: “The Sphinx set a ‘spinniker’, a kind of large balloon jib extending from the topmast head to the deck, and before the wind a most powerful drawing sail.” The success of this new sail, which was fancifully reputed to cover an acre, led racing competitors of the yacht Sphinx to call the sail Sphinx’s acre, a term that was quickly adapted into the form we use today.

Nautical language is often infused with such mythological cues. Lazarette, for example, derives from Lazarus, the biblical beggar who was covered with sores (and who eventually rose from the dead, in John 11:43). In medieval Italy, Lazarus was a symbol of disease and pestilence, and the term lazaretto was thus used to designate a leprosy hospital. Such a separate, often quarantined area lent its name easily to the cockpit lockers we now call lazarettes.

Another, similar derivation is Davey Jones’ locker, which is also probably biblical in origin. Davey comes from Duffy, a 17th century Caribbean slave word for devil. Jones is an adaptation of Jonah, the biblical mariner who traveled inside a whale and glimpsed the oceanic foundations of the earth. And the locker is the final resting place of sunken ships and drowned sailors. Tobias Smollett, writing in his 1751 novel The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, calls Davey Jones “the fiend that presides over all the evil spirits of the deep, and is often seen in various shapes, perching among the rigging on the eve of hurricanes, ship-wrecks, and other disasters to which sea-faring life is exposed, warning the devoted wretch of death and woe.”

Almost every mythological tradition possesses a character – Sedna of the Inuit, Poseidon of the Greeks, Aegir of the Vikings – who is master or mistress of the depths; a devil who hoards the sodden treasure in dark caves. Davey Jones is only the most recent of those benthic demons (benthic: of the bottom of the sea; possibly ancient Egyptian in origin, from ben, meaning ‘of the ancestral waters’).

Many other nautical terms have developed from peculiarities of circumstance. Cockpit is a good example. While modern yachting cockpits lie only slightly below the level of the deck, warships in battle (both ancient and modern) were piloted from the most inaccessible and well-protected area of the ship. Typically this was far beneath the deck, below the water line, just forward of the rudder post. A helmsman at this location was out of reach of enemy artillery. It was the safest place on the ship, and for this reason wounded sailors were carried there in the midst of battle. The mess and mayhem – blood, shouting, the reek of adrenaline – reminded sailors of an enclosed cock fighting arena, a dark pit of gruesome sport. The place came to be called the cockpit for this reason.

Or did it? Another version of this etymology asserts that the term cockpit derives instead from the location of the junior officers’ quarters: near the stern, below the waterline. Such officers were sometimes cocky: aggressive, arrogant, pushy. And, moreover, their quarters were small and cramped, like a chicken-coop.

No one knows which of the explanations for the etymology of cockpit is most accurate. This is true of many nautical terms which have developed by ad hoc association and innovation. One famous contested phrase is “freeze the balls off a brass monkey.” A popular and rather complicated explanation for this term involves a brass housing (the monkey) used as a base for stacks of cannon balls. When the temperature dropped sufficiently, so the argument goes, the brass frame would contract and the balls would fall off. But the United States Navy Historical Center, which receives many requests for the origin of this phrase, claims the above explanation has no merit. Cannon balls were stored in shot racks (known sometimes as garlands), not brass monkeys. The phrase may be an adaptation of “freeze the tail off a brass monkey,” an image used in C.A. Abbey’s Before the Mast (1857); but a confident and accurate explanation remains elusive.

Conversely, some linguistic origins are straightforward. The terms port and starboard, for example, are well known to have evolved from reference to the sides of Viking ships used for moorage and navigation (the side with the rudder being most prudently positioned furthest from shore). The scuttlebutt (from scuttle, to cut a hole, and butt, denoting a cask), was an open cask of water kept on deck for use by crews in the age of sail. It was the gathering place for ship’s gossip, the equivalent of today’s water cooler. The word admiral also devolves directly, from three Arabic words: amir al bahr, which together mean ‘commander of the sea.’ Bosun evolved from boatswain, the title of a petty officer on a merchant ship. Catamaran is adapted from a Tamil word, kattumaram (‘to tie logs’). Dinghy is of Hindi origin. And Shakespeare coined the term sea-change, in The Tempest:

Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made: Those pearls that were his eyes; Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 1 Scene 2

The lineage of words is a subject of surprisingly spirited debate among academics and armchair linguists alike. Why should it matter, after all, if the contested nautical word posh derives from its supposed relevance to the best births on ships traveling between England and India (Port Out, Starboard Home) or from a Romany (Gypsy) word for the English half-penny? But it matters a great deal, and for good reason: language lies at the root of culture, of identity. Posh, which is indeed a word of Romany and not British origin, denotes one way in which the Rom have left their mark, as hand prints in a cave or images on canvas leave their marks. Language is one means of fixing ourselves in time and place, of affirming our existence.

And as times and places change, so do dialects and languages. Etymology tends to look to the past, but the present is where all etymological change takes place. This is true even in the maritime tradition, fiercely wedded though it is to archaic values and practices. In a cultural milieu where Victorian dress is common (white pants, blue blazer) and doing things the old-fashioned way is considered a prime virtue, one wouldn’t expect to find much in the way of linguistic innovation.

But innovation builds upon itself, and the areas of sailing which show remarkable progress also boast a plethora of new and inventive terms. Many examples may be found in windsurfing and kiteboarding. Windsurfing freestyle moves include the Spock, flaka, willy skipper, heli-tack, Vulcan, grubby, shisha, and pushloop. These new terms have been coined by mariners — often young, or rebellious in the face of tradition — who have no investment in maritime customs. They’re making it up as they go, inventing new gear and new vernacular, improvising language as Homo floresiensis must have done a hundred thousand years ago.

This is how language makes its way in the world: by haphazard turns and spontaneous connections, by experiment and juxtaposition and odd accidents. And though we no longer cross the seas in makeshift ships, as our ancestors did, and nautical language is no longer near the centre of our expressiveness, the argot of the sea will find many ways to persist and grow. It will pushloop itself into other cultures and traditions, fasten itself where it doesn’t belong, and make a new home.

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Ross Laird

Ross Laird, PhD RCC

Clinical Consultant, Author, Educator

My work focuses on the interconnected themes of mental health, trauma, addictions, and creativity. I provide clinical consulting, professional development services, and community education for a wide range of institutions and organizations.