Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Luff

So I'm writing, like I do, and my heroine Juliette Flynn is exhorting her crew: "Luff up! Luff up!!" in that commanding voice of hers and I start thinking. Of course I know what luff means in regards to sailing - bring the ship as close to the wind as possible even though you are sailing into it rather than before it. But how, I say to myself, do I describe that to the reader? How do I impart that moment - really a few seconds only - of urgency as the ship comes around and her sails either do or do not fill with wind? That intense feeling of complete uncertainty that comes with knowing you've done everything correctly and now it's all up to something as capricious and uncontrollable as the wind? It makes my heart skip a beat just thinking about it.

Still chewing my nails, I went to the old dictionary of sailing and nautical terms (originally published in 1867) and looked up "luff". What I found surprised me. So here I am sharing it with you.

First, there was what we already knew: luff is the order to the helmsman to bring the ship to windward. This is sometimes referred to as springing a luff which has that sailory tang to it, doesn't it?

Next is where it gets interesting. The widest part of the bow of a ship can also be referred to as a luff as can the part of a sail that takes the wind. Most curious of all, though, is that luff is the old English word for Lieutenant. And then all of a sudden the light bulb went on over my head. So that's why, despite the obvious lack of any letter even remotely resembling an f in that word, British people to this day say "Lufftenant".

And thus the picture above. Those two guys in fore-and-aft headgear are Lufftenants Mowett (on the left, who aspires to be called a poet) and Pullings (on the right, who marries a young lady named Rose Chub). Dang, Patrick O'Brian had a sense of humor. If only I could write half as well. At least there's always editing, which I'm off to now.

Happy Saturday, Brethren! See you next week here at Triple P!


Capt. John Swallow said...

A general definition of Lieutenant is "A person who executes the plans and directives of another"(that be the commanding officer)...which works well with the French etymology (as "In lieu of" instead of).
HOWEVER...the archaic spelling is Leftenant (apparently someone mis-read the French or refused to spell like them) and from experience I can tell ye the pronunciation is and always has been lɛfˈtɛnənt (lef-tenant).
Unless yer French lute-non or German loyt-nent...both oddly closer to the American phrasing.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Captain! I was hoping I could count on someone to give me a little more detail. Well done, and thankee! Stop by again soon. It's much appreciated!

And on another note, I am one of those French Creoles, so the whole "f" thing doesn't quite work in my ears.

Capt. John Swallow said...

Me pleasure, Miz Pauline...yer doin' fine work o' sharing true history 'ere - important stuff that!
BTW, much agreement on Mr. Davis' book about the brothers Laffite - a grand piece o' research involved there, indeed!

Perhaps ye can join us during NOLA Pyrate Week and celebrate as their favourite port city rises again!

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Well, it's nice to see you have folks who actually know about this stuff showing up and posting, now. All I have to say is that I am in agreeance with ye, "springing a luff" does have that sailory tang to it, or is it more of a wang?

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! It is nice, isn't it? I like it when people build on what got started here at Triple P. I would never pretend to know everything. And, in answer to your query, I think the difference between "tang" and "wang" is how recently the sailor in question had a bath.