Being new to the world of sailing, I am quickly realizing that one of the pre-requisites for the, "Teach Yourself Sailing -101" curriculum happens to be a course in foreign language. A maritime language almost comparable with the antiquated language of Latin. I say this because just as a pre-med student is required to study Latin in order to advance through the most basic courses in medical school - A Sailor must become fluent in a whole new language before he or she ever steps foot on deck.
It's a nautical language that originated in the earliest days of sailing. Like Latin, it has retreated from the mainstream. However, it remains in full force and is still practical in the discipline of sailing today. The unanticipated task of becoming fluent in this new language may seem daunting at first and is perhaps, the reason why some get discouraged from exploring the realm of sailing much past the point of sighing at the tranquil sight of a sailboat moored in the sunset.
Though I can't deny -at first glance- the language presented itself as slightly confusing, I am quickly realizing that it's really not that difficult.
In fact, if you (like me) are new to the world of sailing you probably already know more than you think.
The sailor's vocabulary is responsible for shaping a significant portion of modern-day English. Many commonly used phrases derive from the enigmatic dialogues heard on sailing ships centuries ago. For instance, 'The Bitter End', 'Loose Cannon', -and one of my favorites- 'Three Sheets to the Wind'. These are all commonly used terms and can be traced back to the early days of sailing. So don't get discouraged if you hear a word or a term that you are not immediately familiar with. Learning this new language can actually be a lot of fun as well as interesting.
If you haven't watched the movie "Captain Ron" by now, stop reading, grab a six-pack of your favorite beverage,popcorn, and go watch it! Trust me you'll thank me later.. In this offbeat comedy Captain Ron successfully transforms a suburban family who know absolutely nothing about sailing into a crew of seasoned sailors over the course of just one cruise. Amidst the puns and folly, he haphazardly introduces them to all of the aspects of sailing with an emphasis on the new language. Terms like boom, mizzen, and winch, all of which describe the different components on the boat for which a fundamental understanding is required to operate successfully. Although, every sailboat may not have a mizzenmast it's good to know what it is so you can either identify it if you do have one or stop looking for it if you don't.
A mizzenmast is basically a second mast set right behind the main mast or the third mast furthest from the bow depending on what type of sailboat you have. Sailboats come in a myriad of styles and shapes and each is called by a different name. That's a lesson all in itself for another day. (in other words I'm still not that good at identifying all of the different variations)
Back to mizzenmast. Researching the origin of this word is where the learning experience starts to get interesting. In my mind, words are very much like sailors. They travel from one language to the next and anchor for awhile before they move on to a new language. In the case of the word mizzen, it arrived at its late Middle English port sometime around the 15th century. Some of mizzen's prior ports of call were French-misaine, Italian-mezzano, and Latin-medianus meaning "of the middle" (did I mention Latin earlier in this post?) Therefore, if you have a sailboat with more than one mast, the mizzenmast would be located somewhere amidship. See how easy this stuff is?
There are many more words, terms, and phrases that are simply not going to fit in this post so at this point my friends, I'm afraid we have reached the "Bitter End" (*wink*). I'm going to leave off with a few commonly used phrases that you may already be familiar with but you might not be aware of their nautical beginnings. I have also started a tabbed-page bar across the top of this blog so we can all have a quick easy reference to some basic words and terms at the click of a button.
Have fun exploring the Language of Sailing!
Senior officers in the English Navy were known as "bigwigs" because they wore huge wigs. Bigwig officers aboard ships were often disliked. Today it is still used to refer to the most important person in a group or undertaking and is often used in a derogatory manner.
The scuttlebutt is a cask on a ship containing the vessel's drinking water. It was named this as the container was traditionally a small barrel, the so-called "butt," which had been "scuttled" -- had a hole made in it -- so water could be accessed. As sailors would often gather around the scuttlebutt to chat, the word has also taken on a slang meaning of rumor or gossip.
At a loose ends:
A nautical term for a rope when unattached and therefore neglected or not doing its job. Thus 'tying up loose ends' indicates having done a complete job or having dealt with all the details.
The word barge refers to the more common, flat-bottomed workboat which is hard to maneuver and difficult to control. They would bump and bang into other boats thus the term . . . "barge in."
Today the term "loose cannon" refers to someone who is out of control, unpredictable, and who may cause damage, just as the canons would do if they were to break loose on the decks of the old sailing vessels.
Three sheets to the wind:
This expression meant that one did not have control of the vessel because one had lost control of the sheets or lines. Today the expression is used to refer to someone who is drunk or does not have control of himself or herself.
The last part of a rope or final link of chain. The end attached to the vessel, as opposed to the "working end" which may be attached to an anchor, cleat, other vessel, etc. Today the term is used to describe a final, painful, or disastrous conclusion (however unpleasant it may be).