Saturday, September 10, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Crab

It will come as no surprise to any of the Brethren that the word crab at sea very rarely refers to the shellfish. There are crabs which are tools, a ship can crab to it and an individual can even be a crab. In fact our reference to someone being “crabby” probably has an origin at sea.

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...


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Happy Saturday to you and all the brethren. Another successful day of painting in the books and it's time for a cup o' grog. Nothing to be crabbed about now.

I doubt that Paul Bettany minds riding on Rusty's big old coat-tails... He's still getting paid.

Pauline said...

Agreed and done, Timmy! And perhaps I was speaking more in Mrs. Bettany's voice there; no one likes to see the one they love marginalized, regardless of income.

But who will be Javert...

Lana said...

Hi Pauline,

Recent follower - but reading this, I was curious as to your source for rowing "catching a crab" meaning not dipping your oar fully into the water. I ask simply out of interest as to how the term may have evolved.

I rowed in college and (unfortunately) caught many crabs - but ours meant either dipping your oar too deep (deep enough to catch a crab on the bottom), or generally not getting your oar out of the water in time with the others. In both cases the oar acted as a brake on the boat (meaning everyone else had to pull harder). In frightening cases, the momentum of the boat would catch the blade and send the handle flying for your head (or over your head if you ducked). But at least I never got pulled out of the boat by one (like this poor guy: Youtube link)

Pauline said...

Excellent info, Lana; and thanks for the link.

A lot of the terms discuss in SMS posts come from "The Sailors Word Book". This dictionary of nautical speak was written by Admiral W.H. Smyth RN and originally published in 1867. It is an astonishing and very handy piece of source material.

Charles L. Wallace said...

Back in the aviation days, I learned that planes can 'crab' just as ships can - pointed in one direction, and going in a slightly different direction. Good stuff, and thankee.

(By the way, other than fishing, my gang surely enjoys crabbing more than anything. Except maybe wenching, and pub-crawling. ;-) ha!

Pauline said...

That's an interesting point; wouldn't want to be in a plane that crabbed. Scary.