At sea, a lot of things go by various monikers. As we saw on Monday, a rope can be a cable or a hawser as well. In today’s case, tom does a lot of duty away from land. It might designate items familiar to landsmen, like an axe or a drum, or it may go quite a bit further out. Let’s take a look, shall we?
The two most recognizable uses of the root tom at sea are in the tomahawk and the tom-tom. The first is of course the long-handled axe made familiar to Europeans through contact with Native North Americans. While the boarding axe never lost favor aboard ship, the balance of the tomahawk made it ideal for throwing and so it was used by seamen in engagements. The tom-tom is of course the palm drum frequently found among South Sea islanders and in the Indian sub-continent of Asia. Though frequently thought of as a Native American instrument, and thus categorized by old Westerns, it was in fact an Eastern creation. The tom-tom became familiar to sailors visiting India where it was used to alert crowds to public pronouncements or entertainments like snake charmers.
A tompion, or tompkin, is a circular piece of wood resembling a bottle stopper that is used to stop the muzzle of a pistol, gun or even a cannon. The tompion is placed in the barrel and then surrounded by putty, tallow or some similar substance. This process keeps sea water and mist out of the gun, slowing the accumulation of rust. A tompion can also refer to the stopper fitted between the powder and the shell of a mortar. There is some debate among linguists whether or not our modern word “tampon”, which did not come into common use until the 20th century, is a corruption of the word tompion.
Tom is an affectionate name for a favorite gun, usually found on the bow or quarterdeck and of nine to twelve pounds. These guns are also referred to as chasers. A long tom is, not surprisingly, the same type of cannon with a longer barrel.
A tommy cod is a small variety of that fish seen along the Atlantic coast of Canada in the winter months and sometimes called a frost-fish. A Tom Norrie is a British sailors’ term for the puffin, those black and white Arctic birds with surprisingly colorful beaks.
When it comes to sailor-speak, tom really shines in descriptive language that seems to refer to an actual person. Tom Astoner is a name for a dashing or unusually attractive man, “astoner” coming either from the word astound or the colloquial “astony”, to terrify. Tom Pepper was, according to superstitions of the sea, a man who was kicked out of Hell for telling nothing but lies. Thus, a liar is branded Tom Pepper. Tom Cox’s traverse may refer to going up on hatchway and down another or it may point to someone who is all talk but has nothing worthwhile to offer. “That’s Tom Cox’s traverse if he’s ever seen a fighting action.”
And that, dear Brethren, is all for today. Happy Saturday to ye and yer crew.
Header: Tom Norries in conversation