Two weevils crept from the crumbs. “You see those weevils, Stephen?” said Jack solemnly.
“Which would you choose?”
“There is not a scrap of difference. Arcades ambo. They are the same species of curculio, and there is nothing to choose between them.”
“But suppose you had to choose?”
“Then I should choose the right-hand weevil; it has a perceptible advantage in both length and breadth.”
“There I have you,” cried Jack. “You are bit – you are completely dished. Don’t you know that in the Navy you must choose the lesser of two weevils? Oh ha, ha, ha, ha!”
~ from The Fortunes of War by Patrick O’Brian
What one should do in the Navy was always uppermost in Triple P’s favorite fictional captain’s mind. Jack Aubrey was bred to the service, knowing very little of life away from his familiar wooden world upon wave. And service, in the form of word and action, would have been equally dear; it was and still is to men and women like Captain Aubrey.
Service is, as Admiral Smyth notes, the “general term” for the profession of military men and women. But the word had other meanings aboard ship in the Great Age of Sail that may seem unusual, perhaps even surprising, to the modern mind.
To see service was a well-used term at the time for being involved in fighting action. The risks of same, of course, were and still are part of the general term.
A serving board was a flat piece of wood with a handle, vaguely resembling a pizza board, which was used for passing items from one man to another while working in the rigging. The handle was usually attached to a so called served rope, which kept the board or other tools from toppling to the deck. This rope, made of old yarns, was sometimes simply referred to as a service. The making of such a rope, and others besides, was accomplished in part with a serving mallet. This had a groove on one side and was used to wrap the yarns tightly to form a rope.
Serving out slops is the ancient phrase for handing out clothing from the stores to men aboard ship. This is not the same as the auctioning of personal effects that sometimes occurred after the death of a mate at sea. The phrase became a euphemism for flogging or other punishments on both sides of the Atlantic by the middle of the 18th century.
Gun crews were said to serve their gun. Originally this meant supplying each individual cannon with shot, powder and light but eventually the phrase took on the meaning of the crew working together to see that their gun was fired fast, clean and true.
Aboard ship, too, men, machines and stores were referred to as serviceable. A man was serviceable if he was able, stores serviceable if fit for use, and those aforementioned guns serviceable if they could be used without fear of misfire or explosion.
And so then as now – keeping in mind that military service has been voluntary in most places throughout most of history – those who choose to serve deserve our thanks, respect and admiration. Triple P salutes you all; you are the true heroes in our world.
Finally, just in case you were wondering, Dean King kindly enlightens as to the meaning of the Latin phrase Arcades ambo in his A Sea of Words:
Two people of the same tastes, professions or character, often used derogatorily. The Latin means literally “both Arcadians,” i.e., two pastoral poets or musicians.