Trafalgar & The Language of the Age of Sail, Part II

Two hundred years ago last week, on 21 October 1805, the Battle of Trafalgar was fought off the coast of Spain. A fleet of 27 Royal Navy ships under the command of Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson defeated a fleet of 33 French and Spanish ships under the command of Vice Admiral Pierre Charles Silvestre de Villeneuve. In the battle, 22 French and Spanish ships were captured or sunk. No British ships were lost. Villeneuve was captured and eventually paroled back to France. Upon his return he was found dead in his room at an inn, stabbed in the chest six times. The death was ruled a suicide.

Because of the decisive victory at Trafalgar, even though the Napoleonic wars continued for another ten years, the threat of Napoleon’s invading England was ended that October. But more than this, Trafalgar cemented British control of seas for a hundred years and bestowed on the Royal Navy an aura of invincibility.

Regular readers of the Wordorigins site and those who’ve read Word Myths are familiar with CANOE, the jocular Conspiracy to Attribute Nautical Origins to Everything, the habit of naval enthusiasts to find nautical etymologies for all sorts of words and phrases. We’re all familiar with the more common terms that are falsely given nautical origins. But there are a large number of words and phrases that do have nautical origins or relate to the Age of Sail. So in honor of the battle fought 200 years ago, here is a second tranche of words and phrases with true nautical connections.

batten, n., a strip of wood used to secure tarpaulins over hatches in bad weather, 1769. to batten down, v., to fasten with battens, 1823. A variant of baton.

broadside, n., 1. the side of a ship, 1591; the simultaneous firing of all the guns on one side of a ship, 1597.

cross the T, v., to bring one’s line of battle across the front or rear of the enemy’s line, allowing your fleet to fire the entire weight of its broadsides while simultaneously limiting the enemy’s ability to bring guns to bear. Nelson crossed the T at Trafalgar.

hulk, n., 1. a ship, c.1000; 2. the hull of a decommissioned ship, used as a storehouse, prison, or for other purposes, 1671; 3. a large person, 1597. From the Old English hulc.

hull, n., the body of a ship, 1571. Of obscure origin. Possibly the same word as hull, the shell or husk of seed, but this is not certain.

Kiss me, Hardy, c.phr., ascribed to be the final words of Nelson. Hardy was the captain of the HMS Victory.

line of battle, n., a fleet of ships of the largest size, usually 74 guns or more, also used adjectivally, 1695. From the battle formation of a line, allowing all the ships to deploy their full broadside.

loblolly, n., a thick gruel used especially to feed medical patients aboard ship. Also, loblolly boy and loblolly man to refer to a naval surgeon’s assistants. The lob- is probably echoic of a boiling stew. –lolly is probably from the Devon dialectal term for a broth or soup.

log, n., 1. a device used for determining a ship’s speed consisting of a block of wood attached to a line that is tossed overboard and the line measured over a fixed period, 1574; 2. clipped form of log book, a journal used to record the course and speed of a ship, 1825.

man-of-war, n., a warship, 1485. From the use of the term to mean a warrior or soldier.

mast, n., a pole fixed to the keel of a ship used to support sails, Old English from a common Germanic root.

master-at-arms, n., a petty officer charged with maintaining discipline aboard a ship, 1732.

midshipman, n., the highest rank of non-commissioned officer, a naval cadet, 1662. From the station of this officer amidships.

nautical, adj., relating to sailing and the sea, 1552. From the Middle French nautique, ultimately from the Greek nautikos, sailor.

orlop, n., the lowest deck of a ship, 1420. From the Dutch ouerloop, passage or walkway.

quarter-deck, n., a deck that extends for approximately a quarter of the ship’s length, especially the upper deck extending from the stern to the after-mast from which the captain commands the vessel, 1627.

rake, v., to incline from the perpendicular, especially to extend beyond the keel in the bow or stern, 1627; also n., the upper part of a ship’s hull that extends beyond the keel in the bow or stern, 1626. Of obscure origin.

rake, v., to sweep a ship’s deck with shot during battle, 1630. From the Old Norse raka, to scrape, the same root as the gardening implement.

reef, n., a section of a sail that can be rolled or folded to reduce the amount of sail exposed to the wind, 1390. From the Middle English riff or refe, ultimately from the Old Norse rif, which may be a variant of rib. Also a verb, meaning to reduce the size of a sail by means of a reef, 1667, from the noun.

rear admiral, n., a flag officer ranking below vice admiral, so called because the officer commanded the rear portion of the line of battle, 1589.

rudder, n., a flat board used to steer or propel a ship, c.725. From the Old English róder.

sail, n., a piece of canvas or cloth used to catch wind and propel a vessel forward, c.888; v., to travel on water, propelled by the wind, c.893. From the Old English segel, ultimately from a common Germanic root that has no corresponding cognates in other language families.

scuttlebutt, n., a cask of drinking water on board a ship, 1805; rumor, gossip, originally in US nautical usage, 1901. From scuttle, to cut a hole in and hence a cover for a hole, + butt, a cask.

ship of the line, n., a ship large enough to sail in a line of battle, 1706.

skipper, n., the captain of a ship, 1390. From the Middle Dutch schipper.

skylark, v., to play or frolic, 1809. An allusion to playing high in the rigging, like a skylark bird singing while soaring at altitude.

sloop, n., a one-masted, fore-and-aft rigged ship. From the Dutch sloep.

square-rigged, adj., to affix the yards and sails perpendicularly to the masts, in contrast to a fore-and-aft rig, 1769.

stern, n., the aft of a ship, c.1300. Originally, in reference to the rudder or steering gear located at the rear of the ship. Probably from the Old Norse stjórn, steering.

tap the admiral, v., to surreptitiously drink alcohol from a cask. From the myth that the cask containing Nelson’s corpse was found half empty upon the return of HMS Victory to Portsmouth. Nelson’s corpse was preserved in a cask of spirits, but it is highly unlikely that sailors actually drank from it, the myth arising from a joke sometime after the battle.

Trafalgar, n., cape on the south coast of Spain, between Cadiz and Gibraltar, near the site of the 1805 battle. From Arabic, either tarf-el-garb, western point, or taraf-al-aghar, pillar cave, a reference to the Pillars of Hercules.

waist, n., the amidships portion of a ship, 1495. Hence waister, a sailor stationed in that part of the ship, 1815.

warp, v., to move a ship by hauling on a rope or warp, 1513.

weather gage, n., a position windward of another ship, 1591. The ship that has the weather gage has the choice of whether to engage in battle or flee. The opposite of lee gage.

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