Saturday, March 10, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Hard

It may be that the use of the word hard in modern English came to the lexicon from Gaelic passed through years of seafaring speech. Of course, that statement is debatable but what, one has to ask themselves, in the study of language isn’t?

According to the inimitable Webster’s, hard comes from the Anglo-Saxon word heard meaning hard, firm or brave. In The Sailor’s Word Book, Admiral Smyth disagrees. He tells us that hard derives from the Gaelic aird which meant a rocky promontory that poked out into the water from a shore. This in turn became the sailor’s word ard, a firm beach or shore, or a muddy road path, sloping road or jetty leading into the water that is a prime place to pull a boat up on shore.

At this point, allow me to get the hard part of this post out of the way. It is a certainty that anyone who reads nautical fiction and/or enjoys seafaring movies is familiar with the order “hard-to” or “hard-a” in conjunction with some direction of the helm and/or rudder. In a majority of cases, though not all, there is confusion about just exactly what that order actually meant. If you will allow me to, I will let Admiral Smyth break it down for you as any paraphrasing or attempted clarification on my part can only muddy the waters, so to speak.

Hard-a-lee: The situation of the tiller when it brings the rudder hard over to windward. Strictly speaking, it only relates to a tiller which extends forward from the rudder-head; now many extend aft, in which case the order remains the same, but the tiller and rudder are both brought over to windward. Also, the order to put the tiller in this position. It is critical to remember with this entry that the Admiral was writing in the mid-19th century, so when he speaks of “now” with regard to the positioning of a ship’s rudder, he is talking about a period after 1840 or so.

Hard-a-port: The order so to place the tiller as to bring the rudder over to the starboard-side of the stern-post, whichever way the tiller leads.

Hard-a-starboard: The order so to place the tiller as to bring the rudder over to the port-side of the stern-post, whichever way the tiller leads.

Hard-a-weather: The order so to place the tiller as to bring the rudder on the lee-side of the stern-post, whichever way the tiller leads, in order to bear away; it is the position of the helm as opposed to hard-a-lee.

It is easy to see where confusion could – and does – arise when using the orders in shipboard dialogue. Careful consideration must be applied to the situation by the writer and, as I and so many more capable than I recommend, when in doubt read Patrick O’Brian who invariably got it right.

Stepping away from the helm, we encounter hard and fast, said of a ship which is on shore. Hard fish generally referred to cod or haddock but really encompassed any white fish salted to a jerky-like texture. A hard gale was one whose wind forced a ship at sea to sail under only storm staysails; we would now classify it as a category 10 gale. Harding is a type of light canvas while hards is an old term for oakum.

People are referred to as hard in various colorful ways as well; who would expect less from sailors after all. An old hand who can stand up to anything was called hard-a-weather. A hard bargain was someone useless who spent their time feeling sorry for themselves rather than getting to work. Hard up indicated a person in difficult straights, particularly financial. As Admiral Smyth puts it, a man obliged to bear up for Poverty Bay. Worse still was being hard up in a clinch and no knife to cut the seizing. In this case the man is quite literally doomed; there is no way to escape whatever misfortune has befallen him.

With that, I’ll leave it to you, Brethren, to decide where exactly our modern word hard originated. Given my seafaring proclivities, and the fact that March is the month o’ the Irish, I’ll side with the good Admiral if you don’t mind.

Header: CSS Shenandoah in Stormy Seas by Patrick O’Brien via Marine Artists


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! It would be hard for me to argue with you and the Admiral on that one.

I like the painting, too.

Pauline said...

Nor I when it comes to Admiral Smyth. That stuff will make your head spin.

That painting is awesome - and by a guy named Patrick O'Brien no less!