Saturday, November 24, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Key

Keys have been and still are everywhere aboard ship. Keys to the larder and the spirit room, the weapons chest and the powder box; the list goes on. But there are other types of keys at sea besides those that turn the occasional lock. Let's have a look at some of them, shall we?

Ship building uses the term to mean a dry piece of elm or oak which is used to wedge things, such as deck planking, much as one might use a shim for setting doors or windows by land. In the same art, a key model is an elevation of a ship created with precisely cut boards to form the outlines seen on paper.

Key can be used as a replacement pronunciation for either cay or quay. The former deriving from the old Spanish word cayos, meaning rocks. According to Admiral Smyth:

The term was introduced to [English] by the buccaneers as small insular spots with a scant vegetation; without the latter they are merely termed sandbanks. Key is especially used in the West Indies...

As in, for instance, the Florida Keys.

In the case of quay, the meaning is a long wharf or levee, often running the length of a city or settlement and built of stone. The quay will have rings, cranes, warehouses and all other amenities necessary for the merchant and, incidentally or not, pirate and smuggling trade. For instance, there was once a Rue de Quay in New Orleans which ran along the main levee facing the Mississippi where all water traffic ran. It does not take much imagination to see the famous pirates, smugglers and privateers about their work up and down that stretch. Ah, family time... Quay, as it happens, comes from the French word quai: wharf.

It follows then that keyage - or quayage - was money paid for the landing of goods upon a city's wharf. In Britain, the term was wharfage.

The key of a rudder is the same as a wood-lock. These are pieces of wood put into a ship's sternpost to prevent the rudder from rising up and unshipping. In copper bottomed ships, the keys were usually coppered as well.

Finally, a keyle is a boat also referred to as a keel. These were the flat barges used specifically for carrying coal out of the Newcastle mines. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ceol, a small bark, and has been used in the past to indicate a futile or unnecessary effort: a keel of coals to Newcastle is the nautical version of carrying coals to Newcastle. Why bother? That's where the coal comes from after all.

Happy Saturday, Brethren. And, since the season is upon us, Happy Holidays as well!

Header: Coming Up to the Marker by Franklin D. Briscoe via American Gallery


Capt. John Swallow said...

Cay has always been a sticky word for me - in the Caribbean it is pronounced as it's spelled "Cay" (sounds like "okay").
It's history I believe is actually more closely tied to the French word for dock or wharf, "Quai" (same pronunciation) for the French sailors seeing those long strips o' islands would comment; "Qu'est que c'est, la? C'est comme une quai." for they most often look like a long wharf. In fact the French called them Islettes - as silly as that seems...
The fact that Cay, Quai and the mis-spelled Quay all get pronounced KEY is probably more the fault o' English N. Americans mis-pronouncing it. Sort o' like pronouncing "Rue Chartres" as "Charters".

Another peculiar thing about Cays, their sand is formed from largely organic matter (sediment containing skeletal remains of animals, birds, etc. and decomposed plant matter). When combined with the often present-in-large-amounts seabird "guano", they can become very overgrown with new plant life (inland this often backfires and the excessive guano kills the plant life, but sea water & wind tends to regulate it better). Many o' the outlying islands in S. Louisiana were once like that.

As it happens, Spanish for "rock or stone" is piedra from the root Latin, petra (as in the name Peter...including the Biblical reference). In fact there is a famous style o' Mourning Jewellery known as Pietra Dura (Hard stone) where one stone is carved out in the shape o' the stones to be inlaid.

Pauline said...

Thankee for the insights on this one, Captain.

The issue of the etymology of cay remains in question. Clearly it does come from a Latin-based language but which one remains up in the air.

The Spanish "cayos" mentioned by Admiral Smyth in "The Sailor's Word Book" is more akin to the French "caillou" which also means rock.

Timmy! said...

Interesting post and comments. Thankee, Pauline and Captain Swallow.

And Happy Holidays to all the Bretheren!

Pauline said...

Thanks, Timmy! It's always good to hear from the wise Captain.