Saturday, September 10, 2011
Sailor Mouth Saturday: Crab
Crab, according to the dear Webster, comes from the Middle English word crabbe which meant hook or claw and was originally a word for a crowbar-like tool. A similar tool, usually made of iron and used predominantly for pulling long metal spikes out of wood, is still used at sea and still called a crab.
Crab is also used to refer to a large capstan. This is usually fitted into men-of-war of several thousand tons and has between two and four tiers of holes for capstan bars. When pushed upon by a large number of men on numerous decks, it can generate enough leverage to raise the heaviest of anchors and other loads. A smaller, movable version of the same device which is usually fitted out with wheels and used to lift cargo on and off ship is also known as a crab. A crab-windlass is a much smaller version of this device originally used in barges and now seen on yachts.
A long iron bar, known as the crab with three claws, is used in launching ships as well as for heaving them close to a dock.
A crab-boat can be among a ship’s small craft and is similar to a jolly boat in size and sail positioning. Crabbler is the English word for the Russian vessel known as a krabla. These boats were generally used for hunting arctic sea mammals such as seal and walrus and had thick, ice-resistant hulls.
A ship is said to be crabbing to or crabbing to it – “it” being the wind – when she is carrying an overage of sail in high winds. This situation will make the ship move sideways to leeward much like a crab runs sideways across the sand. A crab-yaw is similar but refers to a quick veering of the ship sideways due to unseamanlike use of her helm.
When a sailor does not dip his oar fully in the water while rowing a boat, he is said to have caught a crab. This action is abhorrent as it can potential throw of the rhythm of the entire rowing crew and at the very least it makes one’s mates pull harder. The saying catching a crab thus translates aboard ship as one of the most popular ways to belittle a fellow sailor.
Perhaps by extension, a popular accusation of sullenness or ill-temper in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was to say someone was crabbed. O’Brian has Jack Aubrey frequently asking Stephen Maturin why he is so crabbed to which the general reply is in kind: “I’m not the one who is crabbed, Jack; you are.” I know you are but what am I, if you like. It may be that this meaning translates to our modern reference to people being crabby as noted above. Aren’t words wonderful things?
Happy Saturday, Brethren! I’ll catch you tomorrow for Seafaring Sunday.
Header: Jack and Stephen, neither of whom appears much crabbed; although if I were Paul Bettany I might have some issues with the billing on this theatre card...