Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Cant

In the British isles, cant has for many centuries meant a dialect or way of speaking as in “The cant of Cornwall.” Aboard ship, though doubtless the word used in that sense did come up, particularly in the Royal Navy, cant tends to mean slightly off balance or off center.

Cant is what you do to a ship when you are preparing to careen her: you turn her on her side. It’s not the most ladylike position but I once heard an experienced sailor, who happened to be a lady herself, compare it to a yearly gynecological exam. “It’s damn humiliating,” she said. “But it’s better than the alternative.” None of your old salts would have made such an astute comparison I’ll venture to say.

A cant hook is a lever with a hook on one end that can be used for moving heavy articles, particularly the ship herself. Cant ribbons are those painted moldings on a ship’s side that are not strictly horizontal or straight. A cant spar is a small, handmade pole that can be used for booms or yards. Cant timbers are those that are not square to the center of the ship. These are usually found at bow and stern. A cant rope or four-cant is rope made from intertwining four lengths of a particular fiber.

On old whalers cant blocks, which were also known as cant purchases, were used to heave the body of the whale around while flensing it (removing the fat). A block would be hung from the main masthead and another attached to an incision made in the body of the animal between the neck and the fins. This cut was called a cant.

A ship is said to cant her ballast when she rolls over so far in a high wind or storm that her ballast shifts to leeward, and she cannot right herself without it being shifted back. Our modern term cantilever, as occurs in plantation shutters when partly open or closed, comes from the similar ventilation units installed in some ship’s quarter galleries (aka the captain’s bathroom). These were known as console brackets or canting-livres.

A cantara is an old buccaneering term for an out-of-the-way place to take on water. A canteen is not only a flask for water or liquor, but also that venerable box which holds the captain’s silver dining utensils. Cantick-quoins are small, three sided blocks of wood wedged between cargos to keep them from bumping into their neighbors.

A cantera is a type of Spanish fishing boat used in the Mediterranean. And finally, troops can be quartered in conquered territory in cantonments. The troops are housed in various settlements near one another so as to afford constant intimidation in the countryside. This is a tactic that the British practiced with initial success against their American colonies.

Header: 18th century engraving of a ship being careened in port


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Yet another interesting and informative post. I can't believe I didn't know any of that stuff already... Wait a minute. Yes I can. Never mind.

Pauline said...

Can't believe... Good one, Timmy!

Mark said...

Nice site there Pauline - I have a fun pirate site been messing with for awhile and also have ancestors from Cornwall mainly, Penfound and Pengilley families.

If you would like a link on my site/exchange etc be happy to oblige.

All the best