Seafaring language - then and now (1)

It's all hands on deck as we batten down the hatches and learn the ropes of seafaring language.

This week we begin a new series all about how the sea affects our language. As an island nation, our relationship with the sea is rich and complex. In Cutty Sark's time, an expanding global empire was protected by a dominant Royal Navy and supported by a vast mercantile marine. It is hardly surprising that the language used at sea, and words picked up from unfamiliar lands should come home with the men that used them.

All hands on deck
All hands on deck

Perhaps another reason is that the English language is particularly pliant. We have no equivalent to France's Académie française which seeks to protect and formalise the French language. Instead, words used in the everyday are continually absorbed. 'Brexit' has recently been added to the Oxford English Dictionary. No one can predict what connotations the word may have in one hundred years. In much the same way, our everyday language remains peppered with seafaring terms but we may not fully appreciate their true meaning or origin. For instance, talk of 'feeling in the doldrums' today has quite a different meaning to that in Cutty Sark's time as a working ship. The doldrums are areas around the equator where the prevailing winds are calm, making progress frustratingly slow for sailing ships like Cutty Sark. Indeed, during her maiden voyage, you can sense Captain Moodie's frustration around the doldrums as he records 'calm, calm, calm'. 

The term ‘copper bottomed’ is particularly relevant to Cutty Sark. Meaning ‘genuine’ or ‘trustworthy’, it related to the advent of Royal Navy ships covering their hulls in copper-plating from the 18th Century onward. The plating prevented barnacles from attaching or shipworms from burrowing holes, preventing both traction and damage and making ships more reliable. Cutty Sark’s hull was covered in a state-of-the-art material called Muntz. Muntz or ‘yellow metal’ was formed of 60 per cent copper, forty per cent zinc and a trace of iron. It was as effective as copper but more economical.  It helped to make Cutty Sark a ‘copper-bottomed’ ship in reality and figuratively.

Over coming blogs, we will look at seafaring terms for punishment, food and general conditions on board. Tune in to get shipshape with the lingo the crew of Cutty Sark would have used.