Saturday, April 2, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Turn

It goes without saying that a change of course will lead to a ship turning. No sailing ship can turn on a dime, mind you, but there are times when a drastic recalculation of course will make it feel like she did, particularly if you are below decks. There are an awful lot of ways to use the word turn at sea, though, and some of them have a familiar, salty humor to them.

A lot of turning of rope and cable is done aboard ship, as one might imagine. To catch a turn is to pass a rope twice around a cleat or belaying pin, ensuring the hold is firm. Similarly, to turn in a dead eye is to wrap the end of a stay or shroud securely around it thus turning in the rigging. A turn in a hawse is when two crosses of a cable have been achieved.

Turn the glass is an order to do just that: turn the half hour glass on deck marking the current watch time. The glass is placed near the ship’s bell which is rung when the glass is turned between one and eight times. One time signaled the beginning of the watch; eight signaled its end.

Turning room is an estimation of space in a narrow waterway based on whether or not the ship will in fact have room to turn around. Turn to windward is another way of expressing tacking into the wind to make progress against it. And, of course, the tide can turn helping or hindering both actions near shore.

To turn a turtle is to catch it on land by the surprisingly easy method of grabbing a leg and flipping the animal over on its back. A ship is said to turn turtle when it is capsized. Turning turtle is also a euphemism for flipping a lazy lubber out of his hammock.

On that note, it is not surprising that our phrases “turn in” for going to sleep and “turn out” for facing the world come from our nautical ancestors. A man turned in to his hammock when his watch was done and turned out of it when he woke up. The hands could be turned up when they were called to appear on deck by the bosun’s whistle. Turn out the guard was the order given to assemble the ship’s marines on the quarter deck for inspection, discipline or to welcome a dignitary aboard. Men were said to turn over when they were discharged from one ship and joined another.

Turnpike sailors is a British slang for con men who pretend to be seaman, dressing and using language like them, in order to give the appearance that they have been left behind by their ship and can therefore rightfully beg for alms. Finally, in a case of homonym, a tern is a sea bird similar to a gull but smaller with a longer and pointier tail and wings. Interestingly, the tern’s genus is Sterna which may come not from Latin but from the simple fact that these birds tend to fly astern of ships.

Happy Saturday, Brethren. Tomorrow is Seafaring Sunday.

Header: Ship in a Storm by Robert Salmon


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I think my favorite of these was "turn a turtle", which also is an expression now used in ice hockey fights when a player covers up and refuses to fight...

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Seafaring language is literally everywhere.