Saturday, March 3, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Mess/Messenger

Mess, in modern English, generally denotes that thing that your roommate/spouse/child (depending on what point in life you have reached) left behind in the kitchen or the bathroom. As 21st century English speakers we almost always assign blame when we use “mess”; it’s something someone else did that we now have to clean up. Back in the days of wooden ships and iron men, it had a much more friendly tone. That said, it is almost certain that one particularly meaning of the word at sea evolved into our current version. And then there’s messenger…

Shooting the messenger would be vastly ill-advised at sea given that the word most frequently refers to the cable used to pull a ship’s anchor out of the sea. The messenger is attached to the capstan by way of a clever series of nippers and lashings which can keep the capstan turning, or “walking” as they call it at sea, continuously until the anchor has been securely “catted” in its cradle, which is known as the cathead.

Actual messages aboard large men-of-war were sometimes carried by boys who were expected to run at top speed from point A to point B. A curious conceit in some Royal Navy ships, according to Admiral Smyth, was to have the boys wear “winged caps of the Mercury type.”

A mess proper was any group of men, be they officers or jacks, aboard ship who take their meals together. Generally these men shared the same watch and spent their down time outside of breakfast, dinner and supper together as well. Thus, a man’s messmate was one of this number. As The Sailor’s Word Book notes, these were associates so trusted that the common thinking became:

Messmate before shipmate, shipmate before stranger, stranger before dog.

Personally, I’d trust a dog before a stranger, but times have changed.

A mess-kid, which we now think of as a messkit, was originally not a receptical for holding eating and drinking utensils but a tub made of wood used to hold cooked food. Mess-trap was the name for the thing we now imagine more as a messkit, it being the bowls, utensils, cups, etc. used to eat with. The mess-deck of a ship was where the crew messed and on larger ships was frequently the same as the gun-deck. Officers and warrant men ate elsewhere, often in the wardroom, with the captain keeping to his cabin and inviting certain officers to join him at his pleasure.

As to that early connotation of mess that may have led to your use of the word, mess indicated the look of a ship hit by unexpected dirty weather. In such cases nothing would be set to rights before the trouble hit, and everything would be “all ahoo” when the squall passed.

And so another SMS has come and gone. I wish you a good mess, Brethren, with cheerful, honest messmates and an extra ration of grog.

Header: Saturday Night at Sea by George Cruikshank c 1840 ~ a good storyteller is always a welcome messmate


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I'm with you on the dog thing... Happy Saturday and a good mess to you too!

Pauline said...

Seriously. That's why police officers say their best partner is a dog. Plus unconditional love; can't beat that with a human.