Skip to content

Sailor’s Mouth: A Musing On Nautical Lingo

January 31, 2012

We’re pleased to feature another fascinating clipping from the Shavings archive (CWB’s Member Newsletter). This one’s about the innumerable lexicon of unique terminology and specific vocabulary used by those in ship building, in particular wooden boats, and those who sail these boats. there are words in here that the computer doesn’t even know, which nowadays is kinda rare, even for the omniscient inter-webs.

Anyways, have a read, and then have a cup of coffee and a think. Then, COME BACK and, by all means, have at it! We’d like to hear what you think. Just play nice, at least when using words we all understand. Here you go, mates, an editorial from Volume 2, Number 5, 1980:


 The other day my wife jumped up from her reading and, pointing to a paragraph, said, “There, read that.” It was an account of two women, marooned in a field, watching a foxhunt.

  “They were held in a thrall of fear. . . afraid that a hunting crop ought really to be called a hunting whip, or a riding crop, or a riding whip, or a crop, or a whip, or a switch, or God knows what: terrified by the 100,000 taboos which were so irrational as to make it hopeless to be sensible about them and so numerous as to make it hopeless to remember then without being sensible. . . . “

     “That’s how I feel at a CWB meeting, sometimes,” she said, and returned to her book. Well, shipmates, her comment stung. That all the nautical vocabulary I’d spent so many years of study and practice acquiring was somehow a barrier to her understanding and enjoyment of boats, had never occurred to me.

      A week later, another member told me that he’d brought a friend to the regatta, a serious woodworker, a craftsman, and a lover of well-made things. After a few hours, the visitor cornered his host and, in an undertone, said, “Dave, the boats are great, but do you have some books to recommend, or maybe a dictionary? I don’t understand what people are talking about.”
     Putting the two incidents alongside one another, I suddenly realized that we might be cutting ourselves off from a large group of potential members just when we need them most.

Now, I’m the last person to advocate abandoning the traditional vocabulary of the sea. But I am opposed to using what lawyers call “terms of art” to exclude or intimidate people who have, as their only short- coming, the fact that they don’t know a rabbet from a groove or a sheerline from the curve of the caprail. Even without meaning to, we’re all guilty of the “one-up” attitude now and then.

      Let’s remember, seamen and shipwrights invented these words so they could carry on highly technical conversations. Later experienced bluewater men used them to exclude beginners from the freemasonry of those who could hand, reef, and steer.

      The wooden boat revival is young. We can’t afford to exclude anyone. We need all the help we can get. To borrow an image from Marty Langland, I’d hate to see us in mid-channel on this wondrous voyage, sinking while people were being blocked from the pumps because they called the stem “the pointy end.”

What Do You Think? Post a comment below.

Have a Good Story? If you have something to share that you know is too long for a comment, email it to us and we might just feature it as its own post on our blog. Send it to

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 31, 2012 9:11 pm

    I have just completed my memoir, and have spent the last four months reading chapters to my colleagues at our weekly writing group. Since my memoir revolves around life aboard a wooden schooner, I include the nautical lexicon. Most of the members of my group love the foreign sounding words and find the language fresh and “live”. However, there is a fine line between peppering a story with lingo and overwhelming non-sailors with the terms and phrases of our maritime lexicon.
    I remember learning the ropes and finding myself very excluded on board a big ship. Because of the learning curve (especially with traditional tall ships and classic boats), the added obstacle of unraveling the maritime verbage can make beginners feel isolated unlike any other profession.

    So, I weigh in on the side of a little goes a long ways!

  2. January 31, 2012 11:52 pm

    Many years ago I built a little dory and rigged her with a sprit sail.

    I tried every which way I could, when talking to non-boaters, to try slipping into the conversation something about adjusting my snotter to get the wrinkles out of my knock.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think they (the non-boaters) noticed as their eyes had usually glazed before I could slip it in.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: