Saturday, September 15, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Speaking Like A Seaman

Another storm is headed our way, this one pushing up from the Pacific. The major hit will be taken by Japan and the Koreas, evidently, but if you look at a globe you can see how surprisingly close Alaska is to that area of the world. We're battening down the hatches once again, and hoping that this weather event is not as destructive as last week's was.

Given all this, I'm pulling an SMS out of the archives. Entitled "Speak Like A Seaman", this one was in honor of International Talk Like a Pirate Day, which will crashes onto our shores Wednesday, September 19th. Why not be prepared?

Avast: We've talked about this word before on a previous SMS but it always comes up when the wannabes come out in Johnny Depp drag. Avast does not mean hello, how are you, or how about a drink, wench. It means stop and a true pirate - like his or her naval or privateering counterparts - would not trouble himself with the long version. "Vast that!" would get the job done quite nicely.

Ahoy: The Pirate Guys themselves list the meaning of this word as "Hello!" in their book Well Blow Me Down. In fact ahoy derives from the Danish ho meaning stop. By the 19th century, however, it was not uncommon for English speaking sailors to greet an unknown vessel with a call of "Ahoy the ship," at sea. It was far better manners to call out the ship's name or, better still, the last name of the captain. By this time, too, vast was in almost universal use as the word for stop.

Belay: Honestly, how many words mean stop at sea? The answer is a barrel full. Belay technically means to tie off the end of a rope and make it fast, often to a belaying pin. But belay was frequently used in general parlance to mean knock it off. "Belay that yarn. You're story is getting old," or " Belay your grousing, mate."

Booty: One of my favorites simply for the difference between its imagined and its actual meanings. Pirates and privateers used the word to mean any part of a prize that could be immediately distributed out such as clothing, weapons, specie, gold dust, silver plate or jewels. Items that would need to be sold for cash were referred to as prize goods while the captured ship was itself the prize.

Crow's nest: Here's one you hear a lot from those wannabes. I once had one foul-breathed hunk of shark bait ask me if I'd "like to go up to the crows nest" with him. Get. A. Better. Line. And brush your teeth. Anyway, actual seamen aside from whalers eschewed the term "crow's nest" as they avoided speaking of the Devil. The platforms halfway up a pirate, privateer or navy ship's masts were known as tops. It was beneath these men to call their top a crow' nest. As an aside, the crow's nest originated as a high platform where live corvids were kept on Dark Age European fishing vessels. When the boat lost sight of land, a raven, crow or mockingbird would be let loose. Instinctively, the bird would fly toward shore and the boat could then follow it to safety.

Duffers: Not one you'll find in the Pirate Guys' books, which is a shame really because it's a nice, unisex insult. When a seaman spoke of a duffer or a duff he meant either a poor peddler, usually of used goods, a smuggler's harlot, or a coward.

Grog: Really, that's anything your drinking at a pirate party. Technically it's a naval ration of one part spirits to three parts water served out at dinner and supper. In the 18th century, when scurvy was once again discovered, some form of citric acid was added as well. The grog ration was officially instituted in the Royal Navy in 1740 by Admiral Vernon. As Admiral Smyth notes in The Sailor's Word Book: "The addition of sugar and lemon juice now makes grog an agreeable anti-scorbutic."

Lubber: An old, Northern English word meaning a clown or dolt. The word crept into the seaman's language and became synonymous with an unseamanlike sailor or landsman.

Mate: Your friend at sea, a member of your mess or simply a fellow crewman. The word may very well have derived from the French word for sailor matelot which was also used by the early boucaniers on Tortuga to indicate a best friend, a man with whom another shared a wife or possibly a homosexual partner.

On the account: A sailor turned pirate was said in the Golden Age to have "gone on the account." The term has to do with the old "no purchase, no pay" adage that if a prize was not caught a pirate made no money.

Scuttlebutt: A barrel with a square hole large enough for a dipper and filled with fresh water. This was left near the mainmast on most ships when water was not being rationed. Because men would gather to drink here they also exchanged gossip and the scuttlebutt. Thus the word became synonymous with rumors and suppositions passed from one person to another.

Stow: From the nautical word stowage which means placing ballast, cargo and even crew in just the right spots aboard ship to get the maximum performance in terms of sailing out of the vessel. It was an art form, really, and only men who knew their ship intimately could perform it well. The wannabes will use it for "stop" which is sad at best and frankly sacrilegious to my mind. My Dad would never have put up with that.

Weevil: This word for the Curculio comes down to us from the Anglo-Saxon word wefl. They start out as worm-like creatures that eat wood and bread. They then grow in to ravenous and fairly sizable beetles that were sometimes found swimming in soups thickened with ship's biscuit.

That should help you prepare for another inspiring and happy International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Sprinkle that language liberally in your speech, Brethren, and enjoy!

Header: Cup of Gold book cover by Mahlon Blaine via American Gallery


Capt. John Swallow said...

While likely unrelated, by strange coincidence many First Nations people in N.A. use "Aho" as a greeting! Several use it as an informal form o' "Hello" (esp. The Lakota - possibly in some Ojibway and Cree dialects). In some it is interchangeable with "thank You" (Kiowa) or even an approximation o' "Amen" or "I agree" in that it often ends a prayer.

It's where the bad stereotype of Indians saying "how" came from.

Timmy! said...

Booty is one of my favorites too, Pauline...

That, and grog...

Not necessarily in that order.


Pauline said...

The Captain ahoy! Thankee indeed for adding to this post. That is some good information there; particularly for writers of historical fiction.

Timmy! I'll be hitting the grog right now, I think...

Elisabeth Philley said...

Greetings Pauline, I'm not sure if my last message was successful. I've changed my profile pic to a pic of a oil painting I picked up in a tiny antique shoppe in Nassau. I would be delighted if you would take a look and let me know what your thoughts are. It was left on consignment from the Nutt Estate, Bahamas. I've been unable to find out anything else about her.

Pauline said...

Oh, Elisabeth, that is beautiful. Judging from the palm frond and the wheel, I'd say that is a painting of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Very baroque, it seems, but that may just be the style and not the date of origin. What a find either way. Thank you so much for sharing her.

Blue Lou Logan said...

I'm thinking that for newbies there could be Talk Like a Landsman Day, in which you, newly conscripted to the ship, are starting to get all the nautical lingo but can't really say anything with real gusto. Now which one was the foretopsail sheet again?

Note that this is not to be confused with Talk Like Stephen Maturin Day.

And good luck weathering the storm, mate.

Pauline said...

Oh man I'm laughing so hard; "Talk Like Stephen Maturin Day"! "Am I not an old salt?" Hilarious.

If this is your first time, start out slow.

Also, thankee, mate. Se far so good with this storm. The high wind warnings have been extended until tomorrow AM so we'll see...

Charles L. Wallace said...

Nice vocabulary primer, Pauline :-) I enjoyed it first time 'round, and still do :-)

Good luck with the storm. It's hurricane season over here, and I am once again our storm tracker and preparedness guy.... mainly, tracking them as all swerve right, right before Bermuda and head back toward the Azores. Strange season (but I'll take it!!)

Pauline said...

Thanks, Wally.

Our storm wasn't as bad as the one we had 9/4-5, thankfully. Now it's just a lot of rain. Soggy birthday for Timmy!

You stay safe out there. Hopefully, we're all about done with hurricanes for another year.