Shiver me timbers! Without the log there’d be no blog

Posted by on Oct 13, 2015

On Saturday I went sailing for the first time ever and had a literary experience. Before I get to the lit part I should say this was not the leisurely excursion you might imagine. It was a race, on the St. Croix River, with 25 other sailboats, and the wind was fierce—or, as I heard it described, just under white caps. It’s no hyperbole to say I was taken aback when told that the experienced hands had not shown up, and I was needed as crew. The skipper gave me the full and complete 30-second tour of the ropes, and then our 28-foot sloop set sail.

“Prepare to Come About.” Has there ever been a more alarming phrase? And in the minutes that follow, a more overwhelming panic? During one such changeover my mind lurched between delight and dread at the thought of asking the skipper to return to shore so I could go home. However, by the third leg, although the wind was still stiff and my ineptitude undiminished, my mood had brightened. I had been rescued from the shoals of despair by words, as often happens. In this case, short stubby words.

Words like jib, leg, rig. How thrilling their sound to my landlubber ear. And how did I live this long and not know that my right side is starboard, and my left, port? But what really pulled me out of the doldrums were the tell tales—the ribbons of cloth sewn to the edge of each sail, waving like tiny flags. The skipper pointed them out to me, said you have to keep an eye on them to make sure the sails are taking the wind as efficiently as possible.

Were they tell tales? or tell tails? And was this nautical use the origin of that word, which means both gossips and warning devices? Or was it the other way around? So, we have finally come to the literary part. As we sailed the four-legged course, such phrases were coming hand over fist, and so, what did I do? I took notes! (Yes, dear reader, I had, with brilliance of forethought, stashed a notebook and pen in my kit.)

Particularly intriguing were words and phrases from everyday language that I was hearing used in their original sense. Here are a few such sea worthy words since moved to dry land:

slush fund
bitter end
in the offing
hard and fast
whole nine yards
by and large

Born as working words on masted ships, they are now found mostly in the retired district of lazy metaphors.

Overwhelm, for example. Aboard ship—or rather overboard—it meant to capsize or to drown under a massive weight. This was not a figurative capsizing or drowning, mind you. When first used off-ship, overwhelm would have been a muscular metaphor, carrying on its back images and memories of a particular kind of disaster at sea. By now it’s been domesticated. The former tidal wave is now a ripple in the bathtub, and we are daily overwhelmed by small annoyances that are not life threatening.

Our speech is awash in nautical terms—both those we recognize as such—even keel, bail out, three sheets to the wind–and those whose origins have mostly been forgotten— make the mark, taken aback, hand over fist. These words remind us that once upon a time, ships and seafaring were a mainstay of life and commerce for the small English island and empire. For words are like time capsules, sometimes buried and forgotten, but holding within them glimpses of a past way of life.

Take log, for instance, as in ship’s log. It got its start in log-line, a 15th century technology devised to measure the speed of a sailing vessel. It consisted of a piece of wood—or log—weighted with lead and attached to a line that was knotted at regular intervals. The “log” would be thrown overboard and the line allowed to unspool from its reel for a set period of time. The ship’s speed was thus determined by the length of log-line (or number of knots) that passed over the stern during the allotted time. It was not an entirely accurate measurement on its own, and the navigator would take into account currents, the condition of the sandglass (hourglass), and sea swell. Each measurement was then recorded in a book, which came to be called the log-book, and later simply the log.

So, if you catch my drift, next time you read or post a blog you’ll know the nautical pedigree of this useful and hard-working new word.



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