The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 5/The Language of the Sea

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The Atlantic Monthly  (1858) 
The Language of the Sea


Every calling has something of a special dialect. Even where there is, one would think, no necessity for it, as in the conversation of Sophomores, sporting men, and reporters for the press, a dialect is forthwith partly invented, partly suffered to grow, and the sturdy stem of original English exhibits a new crop of parasitic weeds which often partake of the nature of fungi and betoken the decay of the trunk whence they spring.

Is this the case with the language of the sea? Has the sea any language? or has each national tongue grafted into it the technology of the maritime calling?

The sea has its own laws,—the common and unwritten law of the forecastle, of which Admiralty Courts take infrequent cognizance, and the law of the quarter-deck, which is to be read in acts of Parliament and statutes of Congress. The sea has its own customs, superstitions, traditions, architecture, and government; wherefore not its own language? We maintain that it has, and that this tongue, which is not enumerated by Adelung, which possesses no grammar and barely a lexicon of its own, and which is not numbered among the polyglot achievements of Mezzofanti or Burritt, has yet a right to its place among the world's languages.

Like everything else which is used at sea,—except salt-water,—its materials came from shore. As the ship is originally wrought from the live-oak forests of Florida and the pine mountains of Norway, the iron mines of England, the hemp and flax fields of Russia, so the language current upon her deck is the composite gift of all sea-loving peoples. But as all these physical elements of construction suffer a sea-change on passing into the service of Poseidon, so again the landward phrases are metamorphosed by their contact with the main. But no one set of them is allowed exclusive predominance. For the ocean is the only true, grand, federative commonwealth which has never owned a single master. The cloud-compelling Zeus might do as he pleased on land; but far beyond the range of outlook from the white watch-tower of Olympus rolled the immeasurable waves of the wine-purple deep, acknowledging only the Enosigaios Poseidon. Consequently, while Zeus allotted to this and that hero and demigod Argos and Mycene and the woody Zacynthus, each to each, the ocean remained unbounded and unmeted. Nation after nation, race after race, has tried its temporary lordship, but only at the pleasure of the sea itself. Sometimes the ensign of sovereignty has been an eagle, sometimes a winged lion,—now a black raven, then a broom,—to-day St. Andrew's Cross, to-morrow St George's, perhaps the next a starry cluster. There is no permanent architecture of the main by which to certify the triumphs of these past invaders. Their ruined castles are lying "fifty fathom deep,"—Carthaginian galley and Roman trireme, the argosy of Spain, the "White Ship" of Fitz Stephen, the "Ville de Paris," down to the latest "non-arrival" whispered at Lloyd's,—all are gone out of sight into the forgotten silences of the green underworld. Upon the land we can trace Roman and Celt, Saxon and Norman, by names and places, by minster, keep, and palace. This one gave the battlement, that the pinnacle, the other the arch. But the fluent surface of the sea takes no such permanent impression. Gone are the quaint stern-galleries, gone the high top-gallant fore-castles, gone the mighty banks of oars of the olden time. It is only in the language that we are able to trace the successive nations in their march along the mountain waves; for to that each has from time to time given its contribution, and of each it has worn the seeming stamp, till some Actium or Lepanto or Cape Trafalgar has compelled its reluctant transfer to another's hands.

Or rather, we may say, the language of the sea comes and makes a part, as it were, of the speech of many different nations, as the sailor abides for a season in Naples, Smyrna, Valparaiso, Canton, and New York,—and from each it borrows, as the sailor does, from this a silk handkerchief, from that a cap, here a brooch, and there a scrap of tattooing, but still remains inhabitant of all and citizen of none,—the language of the seas.

What do we mean by this? It is that curious nomenclature which from truck to keelson clothes the ship with strange but fitting phrases,—which has its proverbs, idioms, and forms of expression that are of the sea, salt, and never of the land, earthy. Wherever tidewater flows, goes also some portion of this speech. It is "understanded of the people" among all truly nautical races. It dominates over their own languages, so that the Fin and Mowree, (Maori,) the Lascar and the Armorican, meeting on the same deck, find a common tongue whereby to carry on the ship's work,—the language in which to "hand, reef, and steer."

Whence did it come? From all nautical peoples. Not from the Hebrew race. To them the possession of the soil was a fixed idea. The sea itself had nothing wherewith to tempt them; they were not adventurers or colonizers; they had none of that accommodating temper as to creed, customs, and diet, which is the necessary characteristic of the sailor. But the nations they expelled from Canaan, the worshippers of the fish-tailed Dagon, who fled westward to build Tartessus (Tarshish) on the Gaditanian peninsula, or who clung with precarious footing to the sea-shore of Philistia and the rocky steeps of Tyre and Sidon,—these were seafarers. From them their Greek off-shoots, the Ionian islanders, inherited something of the maritime faculty. There are traces in the "Odyssey" of a nautical language, of a technology exclusively belonging to the world "off soundings," and an exceeding delight in the rush and spray-flinging of a vessel's motion,—

"The purple wave hissed from the bow of the bark in its going."

Hence the Greek is somewhat of a sailor to this day, and in many a Mediterranean port lie sharp and smartly-rigged brigantines with classic names of old Heathendom gilt in pure Greek type upon their sterns.

But the Greek and Carthaginian elements of the ocean language must now lie buried very deep in it, and it is hard to recognize their original image and superscription in those smooth-worn current coins which form the basis of the sea-speech. It is not within the limits of a cursory paper like this to enter into too deep an investigation, or to trace perhaps a fanciful lineage for such principal words as "mast," and "sail," and "rope." In one word, "anchor," the Greek plainly survives,—and doubtless many others might be made out by a skilful philologist.

The Roman, to whom the empire of the sea, or, more properly speaking, the petty principality of the Mediterranean, was transferred, had little liking for that sceptre. He was driven to the water by sheer necessity, but he never took to it kindly. He was at best a sea-soldier, a marine, not brought up from the start in the merchant-service and then polished into the complete blue-jacket and able seaman of the navy. Nobody can think of those ponderous old Romans, whose comedies were all borrowed from Attica, whose poems were feeble echoes of the Greek, and whose architecture, art, and domestic culture were at best the work of foreign artists,—nobody can think of them at sea without a quiet chuckle at the inevitable consequences of the first "reef-topsail breeze." Fancy those solemn, stately Patricians, whose very puns are ponderous enough to set their galleys a streak deeper in the water, fancy them in a brisk sea with a nor'wester brewing to windward, watching off the port of Carthage for Admiral Hasdrubal and his fleet to come out. They were good hand-to-hand fighters,—none better; and so they won their victories, no doubt; but, having won them, they dropped sea-going, and made the conquered nations transport their corn and troops, while they went back to their congenial camps and solemn Senate-debates.

But Italy was not settled by the Roman alone. A black-haired, fire-eyed, daring, flexible race had colonized the Sicilian Islands, and settled thickly around the Tarentine Gulf, and built their cities up the fringes of the Apennines as far as the lovely Bay of Parthenope. Greek they were,—by tradition the descendants of those who took Troy-town,—Greek they are to this day, as any one may see who will linger on the Mole or by the Santa Lucia Stairs at Naples. At Salerno, at Amalfi, were cradled those fishing-hamlets which were to nurse seamen, and not soldiers. Far up the Adriatic, the storm of Northern invasion had forced a fair-haired and violet-eyed folk into the fastnesses of the lagoons, to drive their piles and lay their keels upon the reedy islets of San Giorgio and San Marco; while on the western side an ancient Celtic colony was rising into prominence, and rearing at the foot of the Ligurian Alps the palaces of Genoa the Proud.

Thus upon the Italian stock was begun the language of the seas. Upon the Italian main the words "tack" and "sheet," "prow" and "poop," were first heard; and those most important terms by which the law of the marine highway is given,—"starboard" and "larboard." For if, after the Italian popular method, we contract the words questo bordo (this side) and quello bordo (that side) into sto bordo and lo bordo, we have the roots of our modern phrases. And so the term "port," which in naval usage supersedes "larboard," is the abbreviated porta lo timone, (carry the helm,) which, like the same term in military usage, "port arms," seems traditionally to suggest the left hand.

But while the Italian races were beginning their brief but brilliant career, there was in training a nobler and hardier race of seamen, from whose hands the helm would not so soon be wrested. The pirates of the Baltic were wrestling with the storms of the wild Cattegat and braving the sleety squalls of the Skager Rack, stretching far out from the land to colonize Iceland and the Faroes, to plant a mysteriously lost nation in Eastern Greenland, and to leave strange traces of themselves by the vine-clad shores of Narraganset Bay. For, first of all nations and races to steer boldly into the deep, to abandon the timid fashion of the Past, which groped from headland to headland, as boys paddle skiffs from wharf to wharf,—the Viking met the blast and the wave, and was no more the slave, but the lord of the sea. He it was, who, abandoning the traditionary rule which loosened canvas only to a wind dead aft or well on the quarter, learned to brace up sharp on a wind and to baffle the adverse airs. Yet he, too, was overmuch a fighter to make a true seaman, and his children no sooner set foot on the shore than they drew their swords and went to carving the conquered land into Norman lordships. But where they piloted the way others followed, and city after city along the German Ocean and upon the British coasts became also maritime. For King Alfred had come, and the English oaks were felled, and their gnarled boughs found exceedingly convenient for the curved knees of ships. Upon the Italian stock became engrafted the Norman, and French, and Danish, the North German and Saxon elements. And so, after a century of crusading had thoroughly broken up the stay-at-home notions of Europe, the maritime spirit blazed up. Spain and Portugal now took the lead and were running races against each other, the one in the Western, the other in the Eastern seas, and flaunting their crowned flags in monopoly of the Indian archipelagos and the American tropics. Just across the North Sea, over the low sand-dykes of Holland, scarce higher than a ship's bulwarks, looked a race whom the spleeny wits of other nations declared to be born web-footed. Yet their sails were found in every sea, and, like resolute merchants, as they were, they left to others the glory while they did the world's carrying. Their impress upon the sea-language was neither faint nor slight. They were true marines, and from Manhattan Island to utmost Japan, the brown, bright sides, full bows, and bulwarks tumbling home of the Dutchman were familiar as the sea-gulls. Underneath their clumsy-looking upper-works, the lines were true and sharp; and but the other day, when the world's clippers were stooping their lithe racehorse-like forms to the seas in the great ocean sweepstakes, the fleetest of all was—a Dutchman.

But to combine and fuse all these elements was the work of England. To that nation, with its noble inheritance of a composite language, incomparably rich in all the nomenclature of natural objects and sounds, was given especially the coast department, so to speak, of language. Every variety of shore, from shingly beaches to craggy headlands, was theirs. While the grand outlines and larger features are Italian, such as Cape, Island, Gulf, the minuter belong to the Northern races, who are closer observers of Nature's nice differences, and who take more delight in a frank, fearless acquaintance and fellowship with out-door objects. Beach, sand, headland, foreland, shelf, reef, breaker, bar, bank, ledge, shoal, spit, sound, race, reach, are words of Northern origin. So, too, the host of local names by which every peculiar feature of shore-scenery is individualized,—as, for instance, the Needles, the Eddystone, the Three Chimneys, the Hen and Chickens, the Bishop and Clerks. The strange atmospheric phenomena, especially of the tropics, have been christened by the Spaniard and Portuguese, the Corposant, the Pampero, the Tornado, the Hurricane. Then follows a host of words of which the derivation is doubtful,—such as sea, mist, foam, scud, rack. Their monosyllabic character may only be the result of that clipping and trimming which words get on shipboard. Your seaman's tongue is a true bed of Procrustes for the unhappy words that roll over it. They are docked without mercy, or, now and then, when not properly mouth-filling, they are "spliced" with a couple of vowels. It is impossible to tell the whys and wherefores of sea-prejudices.

We have now indicated the main sources of the ocean-language. As new nations are received into the nautical brotherhood, and as new improvements are made, new terms come in. The whole whaling diction is the contribution of America, or rather of Nantucket, New Bedford, and New London, aided by the islands of the Pacific and the mongrel Spanish ports of the South Seas. Here and there an adventurous genius coins a phrase for the benefit of posterity,—as we once heard a mate order a couple of men to "go forrard and trim the ship's whiskers," to the utter bewilderment of his captain, who, in thirty years' following of the sea, had never heard the martingale chains and stays so designated. But the source of the great body of the sea-language might be marked out on the map by a current flowing out of the Straits of Gibraltar and meeting a similar tide from the Baltic, the two encountering and blending in the North Sea and circling Great Britain, while not forgetting to wash the dykes of Holland as they go. How to distinguish the work of each, in founding the common tongue, is not here our province.

It would be difficult to classify the words in nautical use,—impossible here to do more than hint at such a possibility. A specimen or two will show the situation of the present tongue, and the blending process already gone through with. We need not dip for this so far into the tar-bucket as to bother (nauticè, "galley") the landsman. We will take terms familiar to all. The three masts of a ship are known as "fore," "main," and "mizzen." Of these, the first is English, the second Norman-French, the third Italian (mezzano). To go from masts to sails, we have "duck" from the Swedish duk, and "canvas" from the Mediterranean languages,—from the root canna, a cane or reed,—thence a cloth of reeds or rushes, a mat-sail,—hence any sail. Of the ends of a ship, "stern" is from the Saxon stearn, steering-place; "stem," from the German stamm. The whole family of ropes—of which, by the way, it is a common saying, that there are but three to a ship, namely, bolt-rope, bucket-rope, and man-rope, all the rest of the cordage being called by its special name, as tack, sheet, clew-line, bow-line, brace, shroud, or stay—the whole family of ropes are akin only by marriage. "Cable" is from the Semitic root kebel, to cord, and is the same in all nautical uses. "Hawser"—once written halser—is from the Baltic stock,—the rope used for halsing or hauling along; while "painter," the small rope by which a boat is temporarily fastened, is Irish,—from painter, a snare. "Sheet" is Italian,—from scotta; "brace" French, and "stay" English. "Clew" is Saxon; "garnet" (from granato, a fruit) is Italian,—that is, the garnet- or pomegranate-shaped block fastened to the clew or corner of the courses, and hence the rope running through the block. Then we find in the materials used in stopping leaks the same diversity. "Pitch" one easily gets from pix (Latin); "tar" as easily from the Saxon tare, tyr. "Junk," old rope, is from the Latin juncus, a bulrush,—the material used along the Mediterranean shore for calking; "oakum," from the Saxon oecumbe, or hemp. The verb "calk" may come from the Danish kalk, chalk,—to rub over,—or from the Italian calafatare. The now disused verb "to pay" is from the Italian pagare;—it survives only in the nautical aphorism, "Here's the Devil to pay,"—that is, to pitch the ship,—"and no pitch hot." In handing the sails, "to loose" is good English,—"to furl" is Armorican, and belongs to the Mediterranean class of words. "To rake," which is applied to spars, is from the Saxon racian, to incline;—"to steeve," which is applied to the bowsprit, and often pronounced "stave," is from the Italian stivare. When we get below-decks, we find "cargo" to be Spanish,—while "ballast" (from bat, a boat, and last, a load) is Saxon. A ship in ballast comes from the Baltic,—a vessel and cargo from the Bay of Biscay. Sailors must eat; but there is a significant distinction between merchant-seamen and man-o'-war's-men. The former is provided for at the "caboose," or "camboose," (Dutch, kombuis); the latter goes to the "galley," (Italian, galera, in helmet, primitively). This distinction is fast dying out,—the naval term superseding the mercantile,—just as in America the title "captain" has usurped the place of the more precise and orthodox term, "master," which is now used only in law-papers. The "bowsprit" is a compound of English and Dutch. The word "yard" is English; the word "boom," Dutch. The word "reef" is Welsh, from rhevu, to thicken or fold; "tack" and "sheet" are both Italian; "deck" is German. Other words are the result of contractions. Few would trace in "dipsey," a sounding-lead, the words "deep sea"; or in "futtocks" the combination "foot-hooks,"—the name of the connecting-pieces of the floor-timbers of a ship. "Breast-hook" has escaped contraction. Sailors have, indeed, a passion for metamorphosing words,—especially proper names. Those lie a little out of our track; but two instances are too good to be omitted:—The "Bellerophon," of the British navy, was always known as the "Bully-ruffian," and the "Ville de Milan," a French prize, as the "Wheel-'em-along." Here you have a random bestowal of names which seems to defy all analysis of the rule of their bestowal.

If the reader inclines to follow up the scent here indicated, we can add a hint or two which may be of service. We have shown the sources, which should, for purposes of classification, be designated, not as English, Italian, Danish, etc., but nautically, as Mediterranean, Baltic, or Atlantic. These three heads will serve for general classification, to which must be added a fourth or "off-soundings" department, into which should go all words suggested by whim or accidental resemblances,—such terms as "monkey-rail," "Turk's head," "dead-eye," etc.,—or which get the name of an inventor, as a "Matthew-Walker knot." More than that cannot well be given without going into the whole detail of naval history, tactics, and science,—a thing, of course, impossible here.

This brings us to another view of the subject, which may serve for conclusion. A great many people take upon themselves to act for and about the sailor, to preach to him, make laws for him, act as his counsel, write tracts for him, and generally to look after his moral and physical well-being. Now eleven out of every dozen of these are continually making themselves ridiculous by an utter ignorance of all nautical matters. They pick up a few worn-out phrases of sea-life, which have long since left the forecastle, and which have been bandied about from one set of landsmen to another, have been dropped by sham-sailors begging on fictitious wooden-legs, then by small sea-novelists, handed to smaller dramatists for the Wapping class of theatres, to be by them abandoned to the smallest writers of pirate and privateer tales for the Sunday press. And stringing these together, with a hazy apprehension of their meaning, they think they are "talking sailor" in great perfection. Now the sailor will talk with pleasure to any straightforward and perfectly "green" landsman, and the two will converse in an entirely intelligible manner. But confusion worse confounded is the result of this ambitious ignorance,—confusion of brain to the sailor, and confusion of face to the landsman.

For the sea has a language, beyond a peradventure,—an exceedingly arbitrary, technical, and perplexing one, unless it be studied with the illustrated grammar of the full-rigged ship before one, with the added commentaries of the sea and the sky and the coast chart. To learn to speak it requires about as long as to learn to converse passably in French, Italian, or Spanish; and unless it be spoken well, it is exceedingly absurd to any appreciative listener.

If you desire to study it philologically, after the living manner of Dean Trench, it will well repay you. If you desire to use it as a familiar vehicle of discourse, wherewith to impress the understanding and heart of the sailor, you undertake a very difficult thing. For though men are moved best by apt illustrations from the things familiar to them, unapt illustrations most surely disgust them.

But if you earnestly desire it, we know of but one certain course, which is best explained in a brief anecdote. An English gentleman, who was in all the agonies of a rough and tedious passage from Folkestone to Boulogne, was especially irritated by the aggravating nonchalance of a fellow-passenger, who perpetrated all manner of bilious feats, in eating, drinking, and smoking, unharmed. English reserve and the agony of sea-sickness long contended in Sir John's breast. At last the latter conquered, and, leaning from the window of his travelling-carriage, which was securely lashed to the forward deck of the steamer, he exclaimed,—"I say, d'ye know, I'd give a guinea to know your secret for keeping well in this infernal Channel." The traveller solemnly extended one hand for the money, and, as it dropped into his palm, with the other shaded his mouth, that no portion of the oracle might fall on unpaid-for ears, and whispered,—"Hark'ye, brother, GO TO SEA TWENTY YEARS, AS I HAVE."

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.