* This article was submitted in the Prize Essay Contest, 1937.
“Scip on ancor faest”
The origin of words is always an interesting study, that of nautical words and expressions particularly so. A word launched in some distant port many many years ago, that has sailed the seven seas perhaps under more than one flag, has accumulated an atmosphere and a significance that make it more than just a word. It begins to take on more of the character of an old and revered naval relic like “Old Ironsides” or Nelson’s Victory. One of the charms of sea life is the habit of seagoing folk to cling to old customs and expressions long after they have ceased to have meaning to any but the best informed. And what pictures of the old days some of the simplest words bring back!
It is the bridge of one of the newest Navy ships, with every machine that the ingenuity of man has devised to destroy his fellow-men, the very apotheosis of our modern machine civilization. The quartermaster informs the officer of the deck that it is time to make eight bells. “Make it so,” he orders. To those whose minds are historically inclined another and far different scene is brought to mind.
It is the deck of one of the old line-of- battle ships, or perhaps a frigate with all sails set. The quartermaster has just turned the half-hour glass for the eighth time in his 4-hour watch and to show that he has attended to that all-important duty he strikes the ship’s bell eight times. And you can rest assured that although future naval engagements may be a matter of minutes ticked off in seconds, for many years to come the ship’s bell will toll off the half hours just as in the days when life afloat and ashore was more leisurely than it is today.
The word ship itself has come down from the very earliest days of the English language. In Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon epic poem of the eighth or ninth century, is found, “Scip on ancor faest.” “Skipper” and “Skiff” are both derived from this older form of the word ship. It is interesting to note how little many seafaring words have changed in all that time. Let us take a look at some of the old ships and see what other ties to the present we can find. We will start at the stem. In many of the older ships its resemblance to the stem of a plant is self-evident. On some of the older Egyptian vessels there was a lotus stem both fore and aft.
Evidently they would have to say, “from stem to stem.” Bow is a good old Anglo- Saxon word meaning shoulder; hawse is another meaning neck. The eyes of the ship originally were painted on, as they still are on Chinese junks. The Chinese are a practical people; they say, “No can see, no can go.” The head (washroom) was once in this area, and hence its name; also the sick bay, bay here having the same meaning as in our bay window. The phrase “in the chains” referred to a platform braced with chains from which soundings were made. The forecastle was originally a removable platform resembling a castle designed to make land fighting men feel at home; there was once a similar after castle and sometimes a top castle. Though you will look in vain for all of these features on any one ancient vessel, some will be found on one and some on another. “Before the mast” referred to the sailors who berthed and usually stayed forward, whereas the captain lived aft in the “great cabin.” Midshipmen were stationed amidships and relayed messages from the captain to the crew. Occasionally the captain faced the crew “at mast” to hear requests or to mete out punishment.
Port and starboard for left and right deserve special consideration. From prehistoric times man for some unknown reason has preferred the right side to the left. The words themselves show that, the right side being right, the other side the one that is left. When one of our ancestors, more brilliant than the rest, thought of putting an oar over the side to steer by, naturally he put it over on the right side and this became the steerboard or steering side. Occasionally a vessel was steered from both sides but generally it was from one side only and that the right. This can be followed from the earliest Egyptian and Carthaginian vessels, shows up strikingly in the Viking long ships, and is found in most medieval vessels down to the adoption of the amidship rudder. The other side, the less important side, has been called a number of different names. The French say “babord” meaning back side, and the old English term in use until recently was “larboard,” meaning loading or loaded side. When this was discontinued because of the possibility of confusion with starboard, it was replaced by the word port, which had been in use for many years to denote the side which was traditionally put alongside of the dock for loading and which had a large loading port. Although port is mentioned in a nautical dictionary of 1652 it did not officially supplant larboard until 1840.
The quarter-deck was originally a deck running one quarter the way forward from the stern and on the starboard side was reserved for the use of the captain because it was less cluttered up with loading gear. There was a similar half deck running halfway forward which has disappeared. The great cabin occupied by the captain ran across the stern. Above it was the “round house,” so called because of its shape, occupied by the sailing master, and above that was the poop deck with the taffrail across the stern. Poop is from the Latin puppis meaning stern, and stern itself meant steering apparatus. So we have curiously two sections of the ship, stern and starboard, both taking their names from the fact that at different times the ship was steered from each. A still more curious confusion of meanings is locked up in the word taffrail, which was originally tafereel, from a Dutch word related to table, meaning painting or decoration. It was applied originally to the entire ornate stern of the old vessels as well as to decorations on churches and other edifices ashore. Through ignorance it was supposed to be related to rail, so its spelling and meaning were changed accordingly by common usage. The fife rail, however, has always been a rail, and originally was the rail on which the fifer sat to play while the anchor was brought in by heaving ’round on the bars of the capstan.
Below the great cabin was a compartment called the wardrobe or wardroom which was used to store valuables, including goods taken in battle. When not thus used, the officers, other than the captain, who had no regular place to mess began gathering there to eat and from this developed the present wardroom. Lazarette is even further from its original meaning. Lazarus, you will remember, was a diseased and crippled beggar mentioned in the Bible. The word came to mean a diseased person, then “lazarette” was coined to mean a hospital or ship for the confinement of such persons. Later this was applied to a compartment aboard ship for the same purpose which came still later to be a place to store various odds and ends. The Jacob’s ladder originally led to the sky- sail, the allusion being to Jacob’s dream in which he climbed up to the sky. Now as to the binnacle; Roman vessels had a sheltered structure for the steersman called a habitaculum (little dwelling). This word reached Spanish and Portuguese as bitacula, defined as “a frame of timber in the steerage where the compass is placed.” In Old English it is “bittacle” with its present meaning of compass housing. The theory that it is derived from an old English corn bin has nothing to support it.
There are, however, a great many nautical words taken from the farm. When our Anglo-Saxon ancestors first ventured out to sea they were good honest farmer folk, at home only when surrounded by the familiar scenes of the barnyard. They named many of the parts of their vessels after barnyard objects and animals, possibly as an antidote to homesickness. The manger once helped confine the cow they took to sea with them and Jemmy Ducks, the poulterer, was once a familiar figure on British vessels. The word “cat” at various times has meant various things to seafaring men of various countries. In the thirteenth century it was applied to a rowboat of 100 sweeps and 200 oarsmen. The Norwegians applied it to a sailing vessel that was little more than a tub designed to hold all the cargo possible. The French chatte was a lighter used in loading and discharging larger vessels. Catboat or cat is a familiar small American sailboat. The Spanish fishermen applied the name to a cabin boy. Then there is the cathead, which once had a cat’s head carved on it and even had whiskers, the cathole, cat harpings, the cat-o’-nine-tails of ill repute, the cat’s-paw and the wildcat. Enough to make one little mouse of spun yarn tremble for his life! The tiller was originally a weaver’s beam. Other borrowings where the resemblance is more or less evident are: brace, cockpit, crow’s-foot, crow’s- nest ; dog, hound, and whelp; fish and gudgeon (a kind of fish), gooseneck, hog; horse, horse’s mane, bit, bridle, martingale, saddle, stirrup, coach, and coach- whip; lizard, sheepshank, spider, well, and yoke. Apron, bonnet, hood, and hose came from articles of clothing. Camel, crane, and donkey were later borrowings. Dog as applied to 2-hour watches is of obscure origin, but probably originally meant docked. The well-known story of their being so called because “cur-tailed,” if told often enough in seriousness, will find its way into some learned tome of the future, for other derivations of words just as farfetched are told in perfect seriousness and generally accepted today. It is a mistake to include rabbit in this list, for the ancient mariner would as lief have killed an albatross as mention a rabbit by name aboard ship. If mentioned at all it was as “the furry one” and was very bad luck. More correctly aboard ship the word is rabbet.
The names of some of the older types of vessels are of interest, and some of them persist in a modified meaning today. A brig was originally a 2-masted square- rigged vessel; today it is the place of confinement aboard ship. The word in its first sense is from brigand meaning robber. In its second sense it may be the place where they put brigands if they caught them. Galley originally meant an ancient type of vessel, long for its width and propelled by oarsmen, usually slaves. Galleon and galleass are related words. Today it means the ship’s kitchen. I have not been able to trace a definite connection between the earlier and the later meanings but I do know that galley often referred to the cooking stove itself and that the banks of oars on one side of the ancient galley were broken for a small stove. Hulk originally designated a definite type of an awkward looking vessel, and hooker was originally howker, another type not held in very high repute. The word clipper is from clip meaning to run fast, a clipper ship being a fast-running 3-masted vessel; there were also clipper brigs and clipper schooners. Bark and barge are both from barca meaning originally a lighter, and yacht is from the Dutch jaghtschip meaning a pursuit ship. Jolly boat and yawl are variations of the same original, a very old definition being “Jutland boat.” Dory (doree in French meaning gilded) is the name of a fish, also called St. Peter’s fish, in securing which this type of boat was first used. Then there is the classical story about the origin of the word schooner, how on that historic day in 1713 when Andrew Robinson launched the first schooner in America a bystander is supposed to have shouted, “See how she scoons,” whereupon he is supposed to have said, “A schooner let her be.” The trouble with this explanation is that the word had been in use for many years before this date. The truth seems to be that the word was originally English, meaning “to skim over the water,” was borrowed by the Dutch, and was then reintroduced into English via America. Argosy, still well known in art, was originally ragusa and meant a vessel from Ragusa, Italy. Launch, meaning a small boat, is from Malay lancharan, lanchar— quick or nimble. Launch, to set afloat, is an entirely different word related to lance and originally meant to cut or slit. Junk, the Chinese boat, is from the Malay adjong. Junk, waste or worthless material, originally meant old rope ends. The words junk, chunk, chuck, and chock, all appear to be related, although the exact relation-ship and ultimate origins are obscure.
Now that we have our ship assembled, fitted out, and equipped with small boats, let us go back and provide a crew. We will start with the boatswain, because historically he outdates them all. Boatswain is a good old Anglo-Saxon word meaning the “boat’s husband.” Several different spellings are found, the oldest being probably batswegen, which occurs in a land charter about 1000 a.d. Carpenter originally meant carriage maker. Gunner, sailmaker, cooper, armourer, sailing master, master’s mate, surgeon, purser, all originally were warrant officers, warranted by the Admiralty. The captain and his lieutenants, who were commissioned by the King, did the fighting but originally had nothing to do with the operation of the vessel. King’s gentlemen they were called and today some merchant marine men will speak of a naval officer somewhat derisively as “a gentleman by act of Congress.” The lieutenants were of equal rank but took precedence according to the dates of their commissions as first, second, third, and even fourth and fifth. We still have a first lieutenant aboard ship but he no longer ranks next to the captain, that place being taken by the executive officer, a term originally meaning what we now call line officers. But to go back to the early days, originally the boatswain was top man but later the master disputed his supremacy and came out on top. Still later the captain and his lieutenants attained a position above all of the warrant officers but it was a long and bitter struggle. Without going into too much detail, the successive batting orders after the various shifts were:
- Master, Boatswain.
- Captain, Master, Lieutenant, Boatswain.
- Captain, Lieutenant, Master, Boatswain.
- Captain, Master-Commandant, Lieutenant- Commanding, Lieutenant, Master, Warrant Officers.
- Captain, Commander, Lieutenant Commander, Lieutenant, Lieutenant (junior grade), Ensign, Commissioned Warrant Officers, Midshipmen, Warrant Officers.
Master is from the Latin magister, the Pronunciation of which in Low Latin closely approximates that of master in old English. Mate is from Anglo-Saxon gemette, meaning he whom you eat meat with. Like the great majority of military tcnns, captain and lieutenant are French ln origin, reflecting the early French superiority in the development of military science. Captain traces back to the Latin caput meaning head and lieutenant is from two French words meaning holding iu place of. The variation “leftenant” seems to have arisen from an early confusion between u and v, later changed to f. At least it has no clear connection with left. As ships became larger the captain of a big ship thought he should outrank that °f a smaller ship and in some navies such as the French, Italian, and German, such terms as frigate captain, corvette captain, etc., arose and still persist. In the American Navy, however, a captain was a captain> and only two officers ever held a higher rank until 1860. The senior captain of a squadron was called commodore (Dutch for commander) but until comparatively recently (and today in the United States Navy) that was a courtesy title only. Higher ranks when established were called admiral, from the Arabic via French, amir-al-bahr, commander of the seas. In its present form it means commander of but does not say of what. On large ships there was a master or sailing faster who performed the duties of the present navigator, as well as a captain. On smaller vessels, however, the captain also acted as sailing master and was called master-commandant or master-commander. This later was made a new rank called commander. Still smaller vessels were commanded by lieutenants. These were called lieutenants-commanding or lieutenants-commandant and finally lieutenant commanders. This is one of the few naval terms originating in the American Navy and later adopted by the British. The sailing master became the lieutenant (junior grade). When another grade was needed to correspond with the army rank of second lieutenant, an old French term was revived that had been used in our Revolutionary Army, meaning “he who carries the flag.” And if you ask a Navy ensign today he will tell you he still “carries the flag”!
Midshipmen have a curious history. Originally they were older and more responsible sailors whose station was amidships to help pass the word from the captain, who remained aft of the mainmast, to the bulk of the crew who were berthed and stationed forward. Later King’s Letter Boys were sent down to fill these places while they studied under schoolmasters, afloat, to qualify for commissions. They were very young in many cases and in the British Navy had buttons on the sleeves of their coats to keep them from using their sleeves as handkerchiefs when they sniffled. “Snotties” they were called. If you will look on the sleeve of any civilian coat you will find these buttons today.* Originally rated as petty officers first class, midshipmen finally attained a permanent place just below the commissioned warrant officers.
*Editor's Note.—As well as on the sleeves of the dress jumper of the present-day United States midshipman.
Of the petty officer ratings several are interesting historically, particularly quartermaster. In the Army the quartermaster was originally the officer in charge of troop quarters, from which developed all of the present duties of the Quartermaster Corps. But I do not believe that is the origin of the navy word. Nor do I believe it is connected with the quarter-deck, although at one intermediate period he did steer from there, and was undoubtedly master of the quarter-deck. In the older English literature he is spoken of as the quartier or quarteer. After careful investigation I am convinced he was originally a petty officer ranking just below the master and his mate. In other words the relative ranking was master, master’s mate, and quartermaster, just as it was gunner, gunner’s mate, and quarter gunner. Yeoman is an old English word related to youngman, and originally meant a sort of superior servant ranking between a sergeant and a groom. Aboard ship it came to mean what we would call a leading petty officer, later a storekeeper or clerk. The derivation of coxswain (old spelling cockswain) is similar to that of boatswain. It means small boat’s husband, cock or cog being a small boat, a word preserved in cockleshell.
Certain words and expressions preserve for us old customs, as in the instance given of bells struck to indicate the turning of the half-hour glass by the quartermaster. The chip log with its knotted cord was used with another sand glass designed to run down in 14 seconds. The knots were so spaced that the number of knots which ran through the quartermaster’s hand while the glass ran down was the speed of the ship in nautical miles per hour, called knots. And that is why it makes all the old horny-handed quartermasters turn over in their graves to hear some landlubber speak of the speed of a ship as so many “knots per hour.” “Working off a dead horse” refers to the custom of rigging up a stuffed horse and burning it over the side with great glee at the end of the first month to celebrate the fact that the month’s pay advanced at shipping-on had been paid off. This has become a common expression ashore, a lot of “dead horses” having been worked off in the last few years.
It will be noted that nautical English draws on a wide range of other languages, probably most from Anglo-Saxon followed by French and Dutch. Further examples of foreign loan words are:
Arabic: almanac (manakh, calendar), azimuth and zenith (samt, path), nadir (nadir, opposite to), caliber (qalib, a mould), magazine (makazin, storehouses), coffee, (qawah, Turkish kahveh), albatross (this word, which may be originally Phoenician, is al-qadas in Arabic meaning water raising pelican, alcatraz in Spanish meaning frigate bird, which is black, albatross in English. The albatross is a larger bird than the frigate bird, sometimes measuring over 9 feet from tip to tip of wings, and is white. The change from ale to alb apparently was made to show that the English bird is white instead of black, albus meaning white.)
Celtic: quay or key (cai).
Chinese: typhoon (in fan).
Dutch: avast (hou fast, hold fast), cruise (kruisen, to cross), furlough (verlof, leave), garboard (gaarboord, gather and board), marline (marlijn), smack (smacke), ratline (weveling, not related to line), buoy (boeie, a fetter), deck (dec, roof or covering), taps and tattoo (tap-toe, time to close all tap houses).
French: the military titles already given, barbette (little beard, a barbette being originally a gun emplacement on land protected by spikes driven into the ground), bugle (wild oxhorn), chevron (rafter, ultimately from Latin capreoli, from a supposed resemblance to two goats reared up on their hind legs with their front feet against each other), chaplain (from chape, a coat, the reference being to St. Martin’s coat which was miraculously preserved after he divided it with a poor beggar and was thereafter guarded by a chapelaine), surgeon (chirurgien, ultimately tracing back to a Greek word meaning hand operator).
Greek: anchor (agkura, hook), catapult (catapeltes, a machine very similar in construction and use to that of today), chart and charter (charta, a kind of papyrus), electricity (electron, amber, the first material in which electrical phenomena were observed), ocean (okeanus), truck (trochos, a wheel. The truck on the mainmast was originally round and rove with halyards).
Hindu: dinghy (denghi), dungarees (dungri), chit (chitti), cot (khat, a bedstead).
Latin: fathom (paiene, the stretch of two arms), machinery (machina, contrivance), mess (missum, that which is put or set before one), porpoise (parcus piscis, hog fish), siren (sea enchantress), turbine (turbo, whirlwind or spinning top).
Polynesian: tattoo (tatau, skin decoration). Note also tatoo from Dutch.
Old Norse: leech (lik, a bolt rope. Historically this word has no connection with either lee or edge), ahoy (a Viking war cry, related to hurrah).
Portuguese: Sargasso (sargaco, gulf weed).
Spanish: booby (bobo, fool), breeze (brieza, northeast trade wind), breaker (barrica, a small cask).
Welsh: gull (gwylan, possibly from the crying sound they make).
Brazilian Indian: buccaneer (boucan, wooden rack for drying meat, buccaneers being originally dealers in dried meat).
Carib Indian: hammock (hamac), hurricane (Hurican or Furican, God of Wind).
It is interesting to note the unexpected Way m which proper names turn up. Charlie Noble, for example, was an English merchant captain who kept his copper galley smokestack shined so well that when he came into port people would say, “There comes Charlie Noble.” Derrick was a hangman about 1600 and Martinet was a drill master under Louis XIV. Bilbo is from Bilbao, Spain; duffel is from a town near Antwerp; flemish coils are named for Flanders; davits are Davids and Samson post is still spelled with a capital to show its origin. Lateen sails are Latin sails and there is considerable evidence to show that the word gun perpetuates the name of some long forgotten Lady Gunhilda. Mark Twain is an example of the reverse process. Samuel Clemens was a pilot on the Mississippi River, where mark twain means two fathoms of water.
Nautical slang is a study in itself but I will confine myself to the origin of the various names given to sailors. Bluejacket refers to the short blue jacket which the English sailor wore over his blouse, as seen in the opera Pinafore. Jack is a short form of bluejacket. Tar refers to tarred Pants which sailors formerly wore. Shellback is the same as case-hardened and is reserved for old salts who have met Father Neptune. Curiously enough navvy never did refer to sailors but is short for navigator, an old English word for ditch digger.
Nautical English draws on a wide variety of sources, both from words already in use ashore and from many foreign languages. In native English words quite often an older pronunciation, form, or meaning will be preserved afloat; for instance the long “a” in tackle still heard aboard ship preserves that of the parent word takel in Dutch. Sometimes a word will disappear aboard ship and turn up unexpectedly elsewhere; caboose from Dutch kabuis, the old name for galley, is common in our Middle West where it is applied to the last car of a freight train. Seagoing men have a tendency to clip their words short as if trying to get them out before they are blown out of their mouths by the gale: fore-topgallant studdingsail is pronounced fortygarnstuns’l. “D” or “g” after “n” is often slurred, so that pendant becomes pennant, just as riband has become ribbon, and gallant, originally garland, is pronounced garn, and studding is pronounced stun. Compound words "are not frequent and are usually very simple but take curious forms that often conceal their origin. Halyards are haulyards, chainwales become channels, gunwales become gunnels. Long and complicated compounds such as circulating pump engine crankshaft bearing occur only recently with the advent of machinery. If the old sailors had seven or eight different kinds of small boats they would be given seven or eight entirely different names from as many different languages.
In conclusion, it is especially true of nautical English, as it is of all languages, that one cannot know and use a word to the best possible advantage without being familiar not only with its present meaning but also its previous meaning and history.