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Sailor’s Mouth: A Short History of “Caulking”. Or Is It “Corking”?

March 14, 2012

Seems there are a lot of these in Shavings, editorials on sailing terminology. since this one’s a wee lengthy, I’ll keep the intro words brief. From Volume 3, Number 3, 1981.

In the late 1870s, a self-taught Scottish scholar, James A. H. Murray, assumed editorship of what would become the OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY, subtitled, “A New Dictionary on Historical Principles.” Like most editors, he had no idea what he was getting into.

Member Ted Knowles, spurred by the inquiry in our January-February issue, turned immediately to his edition of the O.E.D., Volume 2 (there are 10),
p. 193, and found the final word on ‘caulk,’ which he forwarded:

Caulk, calk (kok) v. ‘Forms: ce.ulke, kalke, calke, calck(e), kauk, (chalk), cawke, caulk, calk. In the 15th century, calke, caulke, the same word as cauk v. Old French, cauquer, to tread, to press or squeeze in with force. Latin calcare, to tread, stamp, press close together, press in. The prevailing spelling for a century back has been caulk, though dictionaries retain calk from Johnson.

Since it is a historical dictionary, O.E.D gives the earliest appearance in print: “c. 1500: Chester Plays, “I will goe gaither slyche the shippe for to caulk and pyche.” 1552: Huloet, “Botes or shyppes calked with towgh.” J. A. H. Murray belongs to the school that pronounces the word to rhyme with talk.

Boss Rigger Brion Toss also went to the O.E.D, but after looking at the historical spellings for go, gather, ship, pitch, boat, and tow, turned to WEBSTER’S UNABRIDGED, where the preferred spelling is ‘calking,’ with ‘caulk’ secondary. Obviously, this is a bad word to use in a spelling bee.

Brion feels that the “corking” pronunciation comes to us from between Rhode Island and Virginia, “areas rich in both regional accents and sea- going traditions.” He gives several other regionalisms: arsters for oysters, drudge for dredge, tayckle for tackle, and opines that the Eastern pronunciation moved West with the boatbuilders.

Brion continues that “we’re lucky to have access to traditions from every point of the globe, but we’re better off sorting out our own place than to become nautical hodge-podges. How to discover your very own vernacular? Treat words like tools. Use the best one for the job. Resist the temptation to run a board through the planer just because you like the sound of it.”

A nice use of the word is the expression “take a caulk” or “caulking off,” which means to nap on deck and, by extension, to sleep on duty. In the days of pitched deck seams, anyone
who laid down on the sun-warmed planks was likely to rise with streaks of tar on breeches and jumper. In the USN, a very different source of words than the O.E.D., caulk is always pronounced “cork” in this usage.

CAULKING FOR BEGINNERS: now that you know ALL about caulking, sign up for our summer class (scroll down the page) with our own Time Reagan on June 16th, 2012. The class is limited to only 12 students.
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