Saturday, February 4, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Larboard

The opposite of starboard, what we now term “port”, used to be larboard. An editor I’ve worked with made the obvious but important observation that the two words could be easily confused, particularly in a tense situation aboard ship. I had to agree with him, even though there wasn’t much I could do about it as far as my prose. This fact was not lost on a far more capable nautical novelist than I: Patrick O’Brian:

All at once her bowsprit was pointing straight into the roaring gale, though the heavy seas tried to force her head to leeward. ‘Up maintack… haul of all. Cut.’

The axe flashed down on the cable. She was almost round, in the balance. Already she had a prodigious sternway, moving straight for the Thatcher. ‘Fetch a cast aft, far aft,’ cried Jack to the leadsman, leaning out over the quarter-rail to judge the last possible moment, the greatest possible impetus to the full starboard helm that would bring her right round. The leadsman turned, swung with all his might: the leadline caught the bellying ensign-whip, the lead shot inboard, struck Jack down to the deck.

On his hands and knees, through the crash of the blow and the roar of the sea he heard Hyde’s voice at an infinite distance shout ‘Larboard all – I mean starboard,’ then an all-embracing thunder as the Ariel struck the Thatcher full on, beating her rudder and staving in much of her stern.

This typically gripping moment of action from The Surgeon’s Mate illustrates the point all too eloquently. Poor First Lieutenant Hyde, a bit of a ding-a-ling to begin with, wrecks Jack’s ship on the coast of France with his hasty and ill advised command. A simple mistake and the entire crew are prisoners of war.

But why larboard originally when the potential for error in a command was so great?

According to our mate Admiral Smyth, the English word may come from Latin via Italian. The Romans were nothing if not direct and, when facing the bow of their triremes or merchant vessels, they simply called the right side “this side” or questa borda in Italian and the left side “that side” or quella boarda. These two were shortened to sta borda and la borda – thus starboard and larboard.

Port as the indicator for “that side” did not come into common use until the mid-19th century. The Sailor’s Word Book notes, however, that it was being used indifferently as early as the late 16th century aboard English vessels.

The use of larboard for left side of the ship also bleeds into the common name for watches. Two watches, the group of men on duty at any given time, was the general rule on ships of frigate size or smaller in the Great Age of Sail. They were named for the sides of the ship; thus a starboard watch and a larboard watch. In the Royal Navy of Nelson’s era and before, the men attached to each watch were often known as the starbolins and the larbolins. Thus the chanty: Larbolins stout, you must turn out; And sleep no more within; For if you do, we’ll cut your clue; And let starbolins in. No man cares to have his hammock cut down from under him.

The switch to port from larboard was made purposefully to avoid mistakes such as the awful error made by Mr. Hyde. Keep in mind, though, that any nautical fiction using “port” pervasively prior to the 1850s is wrong outright. You might want to put that book down and reach for something a little more authentic. Try that Patrick O’Brian fellow; I hear he had a knack for that sort of thing.

Header: A Gaffer near land via In the Boat Shed


Capt. John Swallow said...

Some interesting explanations I'd not heard previously!

Here's another on the etymology...
"Starbord" is a contraction o' Steer Board - literally the original rudder which was placed to the right side o' the boat (before some bright lad figured how to get it behind and then under). It was on the right largely as it was convenient (more folk being right handed)...the opposite side became "port" as it was the side ye pulled up to the dock on (not disabling the steer board. Larboard snuck in there somewhere (what were they drinking that day?)...sounds oddly like a Viking term for "left"...

Pauline said...

As always, an insightful addition to my humble post, Captain. Thankee indeed. The bit about the rudder makes particular sense. Most people don't know that prior to the 15th century, those all important steering devices were on the right side of the ship. A mug o' grog to you, sir; happy Saturday.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! And a happy Saturday to all... No matter which side of the ship you are on.

Pauline said...

We starbolins will see you larbolins over there. That's the way that goes, mate.

Capt. John Swallow said...

Than ye have no idea how much I need a mug o' grog today ;]

I assume yer staying bundled in furs with a hot Rum...Happy Mardi Gras!
BTW, we have a wee calendar produced by our mates Thais & Tony (lanlords at Pirates Alley Café) that features Pirate Wenches and February is a lass from Alaska! (though she is dressed by "Pirate Wench In A Bag").
We're planning a photo o' the QM for next year...and maybe a couple other Pyrates...

Pauline said...

Awesome! I'd buy that; especially with the QM aboard.