Saturday, March 24, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Z

Words that start with the last letter in the English alphabet are not all that numerous at sea. The Sailor’s Word Book lists a mere 21, and some of those are either referring to land-based military action, types of fish or have no description at all aside from “see …” Removing these we are left with only 15 words in all; barely two handfuls. But if we dig about in the etymology barrel, we find that the very letter itself has a military background which fits in nicely aboard a man-of-war… or a trireme. Thus today, in a departure from the usual, let us explore those dear 15 words that begin with Z.

Some of the words have come to the English language from other climes. A zafar is a coil of Spanish rope. A zechino is an Italian coin, while a zechin (sequin in Venice) is a coin from Turkey. Zumbra is a kind of yawl or skiff seen on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. Zopissa is pitch scraped from the bottoms of aging ships which old salts used on ulcers as a curative. It is also a word for a kind of varnish used in ancient Greece and Rome for not only making ships water-tight but also sealing things like food containers and crypts.

A ship is said to be on a zig-zag course when she is working to windward on short tacks, a difficult and arduous way of sailing.

In navigation, the zenith is the pole of the horizon or the area of the sky directly above the ship. When the sun has reached its zenith, it is time to call noon and begin the ship’s day in the log. Geographical zones constitute longitudinal belts wrapping around the globe including the torrid zone between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, the temperate zones just above and below the torrid zone, and the frigid zones at the polar ends of the globe.

Zephyr is the name of the west wind as designated by Greek mythology. Aboard ship it is often the word of choice for any delightful and welcome breeze.

Admiral Smyth includes an entry for the word zeal, which is so well written as to necessitate a quote:

A quality essentially requisite in forming the character of an efficient officer, since it comprehends ardour for the services, prompt obedience to orders, cheerful disposition, and a studious application to professional science.

There would never have been a hell afloat if all officers were possessed of such zeal.

Finally, in Bill Brohaugh’s delightful book Unfortunate English: The Gloomy Truth Behind the Words You Use, he discusses Z the letter as a stand-alone entry:

Our modern alphabet traces back through Latin and Etruscan and Greek to Phoenician. Phoenician letters symbolized some everyday concepts, such as ox, house, water, and fence… All well and good until we get to zayin, the ancestor of Z. The letter zayin symbolizes “weapon” or “sword.”

So Z was once a tool for cutting down an enemy, something every pirate among us is very familiar with.

With that, I wish all the Brethren a pleasant Saturday and soft zephyrs to steer your zumbra back to shore.

Header: On the Thames by Eugene Lawrence Vail


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Looks like our frigid zone is finally starting to melt a little bit... Not a moment too soon if you ask me.

Pauline said...

Man, you have to swim from one side of the street to another. Get used to it, I guess.