Grammar on the high seas


Who’s up for a little bit of nautical linguistics this week? I’ve assigned myself some homework on the subject in preparation for a trip. And you, dear reader, get to learn along with me.

I figured there was no better way to start 2013 than out on the open sea; a weather eye on the horizon for that island from “Lost.” Maybe I’ll even see some polar bears. (If that reference slipped over your head, fret not. You’ve apparently been spared six very, very confusing seasons of television.)

First, a test: You’re standing in the middle of a common sailboat. Before you is the front of the boat. Your captain, apparently having no other worthy seamen to aid him, cries out to you to fix a loose rigging on the port side. Do you know what to do? Better yet: Do you know where to go?

Since sailors are a different, saltier breed than us land lovers, they need their own terminology. Since “left” is too simple for a master of the sea, we’ll be saying “port.” Instead of right, we’ll go “starboard.” Head toward the front of the vessel, or the “bow,” and you’ll be at the “fore.” Walk the other direction toward the “stern” of the ship, and you’ll have gone “aft.” Simple enough, no? Now you’ve just got to learn to tie the right type of knot before the sails come crashing down and your captain throws you overboard.

Assuming we make it back to land, we’ll be hearing some phrases that sound awfully fishy (all puns painfully intended.) Here’s one you may recognize: As the crow flies. The phrase, meaning the shortest, straight-line distance between two points, comes from a British navy tradition of keeping cages of crows aboard ships. In heavy fog or other cases where land wasn’t visible, sailors would release crows. The crows, not being much of a sea bird, would fly directly back toward land. The sailors would then follow them home.

I’ve managed to dig up a few other unexpectedly nautical phrases: A “filibuster,” now the term for a political maneuver to block legislation by marathon speeches, was once the British term for buccaneers, pirates, who would attempt to waylay ships. And finally, one of my favorites, a “scuttlebutt” was a water barrel with a hole in it. Sailors would gather around it to get drinking water and exchange a little bit of gossip. Nowadays, you still hear the scuttlebutt around the water cooler. And hey! Next time you’re there, you can impress everyone with the neat sailing words your friendly grammar columnist taught you.