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You are probably well aware that many of the more colorful and expressive words in the English language were first used aboard ships at sea.  In a very real way sailor talk was a dialect, a provincial language with a specific and very distinct usage.

Incidentally, there were no women on board those ships, at least not at first, so the language of the sea is a thoroughly male language. 

Heroes and Rogues

Of course England became one of the important explorer nations of the earth when hardy men began heroic journeys across the oceans in the 15th Century, just about the time the language we call modern English was establishing its own special characteristics. Those seamen were gone for years at a time on unbelievably dangerous adventures. Those that survived the dangers of the sea returned to England as either heroes or rogues. They were rough and hardy men who were the rock stars of their day.  Their unique speech was bound to catch the imagination of literate people ashore.

Seamen have always felt uncomfortable on the beach, where everything is unfamiliar, even strange.  The men would drag ashore, along with their kit, their own special words which they used daily aboard ship.  Many of those words, tasty as salt water and palpable as an ocean breeze, grew into common usage in the English language.

Salty Terms Come Ashore

For example, full and by means sailing by the wind, or close-hauled, yet eased off enough to keep the sails full. The ship does not point as high, but has more way on. Ashore, as well as at sea, the term referred to a favorable compromise.

Deep six is another more common term, used to mean dispose of, or throw away. The seafaring root comes from the sailor’s lead line that was commonly six fathoms long. When the lead was swung and did not touch bottom, the sailor would shout “By the deep, six”, meaning deeper than six fathoms. If you throw something overboard in water more than six fathoms deep, you are not likely to ever see it again.

Even though we have adopted hundreds of seagoing terms into our shoreside language, hundreds more are still used in their proper place: aboard ship.  These days, with the popularity of recreational boating, many more of us are using these terms on our own boats. This is partly the reason for this dictionary: to help you use the correct terminology.

Why Learn These Terms?

So, what is correct?  In a standard dictionary correct means whatever is in common usage, but in this dictionary we are stricter. You have to understand the seaman’s contempt for anything ashore, including the way shore-bound people speak. Do you hear that contempt in the term landlubber? If you are to join the fraternity of seafaring folk, you have to speak their language correctly, and make it your language. If you use the term bumper when you mean fender you will be described as a lubber.

Of course, that is not a good enough reason to use the correct terminology.  It is more important that everyone on board immediately understand exactly what you mean. When you say, “make it fast,” a real sailor knows to secure a line to a cleat or bitt with a hitch, while the lubber thinks you are ordering him to hurry up.  Sometimes things happen very quickly on board ship, and a momentary delay caused by confusion can result in disaster.

Can You Box the Compass?

You will find many words that are not directly connected with the sea, but involve a subject especially important to seamen. For example, we have included many weather terms, and many of the words used in astronomy, because the navigator would employ them when calculating his position.

You will also find terms that are seldom in use these days, though they are of interest to a serious seaman.  For example, young seamen are no longer required to box the compass except as an exercise in discipline at the Naval or Merchant Marine academies. Nevertheless, you may be interested to know that the term means to recite all the points of the old 32-point compass card in order. (It does not mean to put the compass in a box.)

wheel on sailing ship

But Is It Good English?

Readers who are particular about good English will find a great many terms made up of two words elided or joined together, somewhat the way the German language puts words together. For example, you will see the term waterman, a term similar to seaman. In neither case would we separate the word into its root parts; that would not be the way the terms were used by a seafarer (there’s another one) in his daily life. The language of the sea has an oral tradition, and this is the way it sounds when spoken aloud. We have had to go a step further than that, to the new words that arose from those familiar elisions of everyday shipboard use, words such as bosun and starboard. I will let you look them up.

In many definitions we have written an example to illustrate how that particular term might be used in everyday speech. Look for the words “as in:”leading to each example. When writing these examples, we have taken some trouble to search for a brief but truly meaningful sentence that will recommend the practice of good seamanship.

You may also enjoy this dictionary as an interesting study of the English language. We hope you will thrill to the smell of salt and tar in many of these terms, and add some of these pungent nautical aromas to your daily speech and writing. 

© 2005 by Mike MacKenzie

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© 2005 - 2012 by Mike MacKenzie. All Rights Reserved