Saturday, February 6, 2010

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Dead Reckoning

Above is a map of the Atlantic including the coastline of the Americas produced in Europe some time in the 1600s. Though it's relatively accurate for the day, navigation by this little puppy would have been virtually impossible. The harbors and inlets are one thing, but the open, blue water would have been incredibly hard to get through. Before advanced navigational tools such as the sextant and before compasses were as accurate as they became later in the 18th and into the 19th century, a lot of navigation was pure faith. Point your ship west or east, north or south, know where the major heavenly bodies were and hope for the best.

As Stephan Talty so elegantly puts it in his book Empire of Blue Water (to be reviewed here at Triple P in a future post):

There were no charts... no way of measuring longitude. Navigation... was an art that drew on ships' logs, lead lines (for measuring the ocean's depth), collective memory and gossip.

Part of the collective memory and gossip was dead reckoning. This is a form of navigation that estimates the ship's position without the use of astronomical observation. The sailors use the distance the ship has run from port and the course according to the compass, rectifying this data with current, wind and so on according to which way the ship is headed. It becomes immediately obvious that the margin for error is immense. Real guts were needed to get on a ship and sail into the vast ocean, particularly in an under-manned merchant vessel or an under-equipped pirate boat.

The interesting thing for our purpose, though, is where the term came from. Dead, as we spell it now, was originally de'd: a shortening of the word deduced. De'd reckoning meant deduced reckoning. There was no hint of the loss of life in the phrase. As language changed this sailor slang shortening of a word that made sense in context was forgotten, and a nonsense word that was spelled correctly was substituted. I find this particularly fascinating in light of the modern fear that written language is sinking into a morass of texting abbreviations and imotacons. LOL! r u kdng : )

The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh? But maps certainly improved. Here's an example of the same general subject as the one at the header, done up by a 19th century cartographer:
With the right instruments, I could navigate my way to Panama with that puppy. Look out Portobelo! Henry Morgan's got nothing on Pauline!


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Ah, but I'll bet that Henry Morgan would like to have something on you! Another fascinating nautical history lesson... Thankee, Pirate Queen!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! OK that's funny! No soup for you, Henry Morgan. Not until you get a bath anyway.