Saturday, August 20, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Lob

When I first started reading O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels I was struck, as I imagine many people are, by the sometimes overwhelming number of unfamiliar terms used. I was relatively good with ship’s workings such as rigging and sails, but the below decks speak, so to say, could be puzzling at best. Of course I finally picked up a copy of Dean King’s A Sea of Words and it was smooth sailing from there (pun intended).

One of the much used monikers in the books is loblolly boy, which Dr. Maturin bandies about as if he were using the word assistant. As most of the Brethren know, he is but where, I began to wonder recently, did the term come from originally. And so today’s post.

Lob proper, as a word unto itself, comes from the Middle English word which was spelled and pronounced the same way. According to Webster’s the word meant heavy, hanging or thick. In that context it can be used to mean a big, slow, clumsy person as well as the more familiar toss or throw that we know from “lob the ball” which itself springs from the word being used to mean “to drop something heavy”. In earlier forms of English, lob could also substitute for lump.

The implication of a large, clumsy person is why some scholars believe that lob is the origin of the word lubber. That etymology stands in question to this day, but it is worth consideration. This may also be the origin of the name for the surgeon’s generally uneducated assistant. The loblolly boy is not to be confused with the surgeon’s mate or mates, who are more like surgeons in training. Loblolly boys were more like servants who fetched and emptied and were often tasked with holding men down during surgeries. Thus, such a man (they were rarely boys proper) needed to be on the large side ergo a lob. The other explanation – this one given by King – was that the title came from the sick-berth gruel known as loblolly which was fed to the very ill.

Lob turns up in other seafaring words as well. Of course most everyone is familiar with those tasty bugs of the sea known as lobsters and the craft that go after them, lobster-boats. Lobster was not much eaten aboard ship but lobscouse certainly was. This is very common shipboard stew made from whatever was available in the way of salted meat, vegetables and spices. Ship’s biscuit was added to thicken it. The name and the stew are descendant from the earlier lap’s course fed to foc’sle men in the medieval era.

Aboard vessels shipping a great cabin, lobby is another term for the little cabinet outside the captain, commodore or admiral’s quarters also known as the coach.

Finally dear Brethren, should you find yourself casting about for a term worse than lubber, look no further. Lob-cock, according to The Sailor’s Word Book, is a term of absolute and utter contempt. It also sounds very insulting when spoken in anger. Just be careful who you throw that one at. A true sailor won’t take it lightly.

Header: Stephen (Paul Bettany) and his seafaring cello from M & C


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I think I'll stick to eating lobster (as is my custom) rather than lobscouse...

Pauline said...

Lobscouse is probably a nice, stick-to-your-ribs kind of meal at sea. But then you aren't at sea, are you?