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

Two hundred years ago today, 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.

Nelson was killed at the height of the battle as his flagship, HMS Victory, grappled with the French ships Bucentaure and Redoubtable. 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.

Even though the Napoleonic wars continued for another ten years, the threat of Napoleon’s invading England was ended at Trafalagar 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 selection of words and phrases with true nautical connections.

admiral, n., a naval officer of the highest rank, c.1425, in earlier use to mean an Arab emir or prince, c.1205. From Arabic, via Old French, amara, to command or order, related to emir. Early English use was in the phrase amyrel (admiral) of the sea, with the latter part of the phrase eventually dropped.

ahoy, int., a nautical greeting call, 1751. A combination of the two interjections a + hoy.

avast, v., imperative meaning stop, cease, 1681. Probably from the Dutch hou’vast, hold fast.

ballyhoo of blazes, n., a sailor’s term of contempt for an unworthy ship, 1831.

barque, n., a ship, applied to various types at different times, 1473. Also bark. From the French. The word appears in Latin, but may ultimately be Celtic in origin.

beat to quarters, v., imperative ordering the crew to battle stations, 1836. From the use of a drum to spread the command throughout the ship.

bridge, n., deck or platform from which officers direct the movement of the ship, 1843. Originally a narrow, raised platform that ran from side to side of the ship.

brig, n., 1. a two-masted, vessel, square-rigged on the foremast and fore-and-aft rigged on the mainmast, 1720. 2. a naval jail, originally on board a ship, 1852. An abbreviation of brigantine.

brigantine, n., a type of ship, originally a ship equipped with both sails and oars, 1525; later, a ship of the type described in brig, above, 1695.

captain, n., an officer commanding a ship, the naval rank below admiral, 1554. In earlier use to mean a chief or leader, a military commander, c.1380. From the Latin capitaneus, headman, chief, via Old French, ultimately from Latin caput, head.

caravel, n., a type of sailing ship, applied to various types at different times, usually a small, light ship, 1527. The form carvel was in earlier use, 1462. From the Italian caravella, via the French, which is probably a diminutive of the Spanish caraba, which is from Greek via Latin.

close-hauled, adj., sailing as much into the wind as possible, close to the wind, 1769.

cockpit, n., the aft portion of the lowest deck of a ship, normally the quarters of junior officers, in battle used as a surgery, 1706.

corvette, n., a small, single-decked warship, 1636. Later applied to a small, anti-submarine warship, 1940. From the French, ultimately from the Latin corbita, a slow sailing ship, corbis being a basket.

crow’s nest, n., a barrel or similar box affixed to a masthead as a shelter for a look-out, usually used on a whaler.

dandyfunk, n., hard tack soaked in water and baked with fat and molasses, 1883.

deck, n., a covering for a ship that also serves as a floor for the spaces above, 1513. Originally, the term referred to the covering, later shifting to the floor. Probably from the Middle-Dutch dec, covering or roof.

dog-watch, n., one of two abbreviated watches, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., 1700. By creating seven watches instead of six, the watches shift each night. From a reference to the brief, light sleep of a dog. In Patrick O’Brian’s nautical novels it is punned that dog-watches are so called because they are curtailed.

England expects that every man will do his duty, c.phr., message sent to his fleet by Nelson just prior to the Battle of Trafalgar. Nelson originally penned, "England confides that..." but confides was not in the signal book and so the phrase was changed to make it easier to send by signal flag.

ensign, n., 1. a flag flown from a naval vessel, c.1400. 2. a naval officer of the lowest rank, originally a soldier who served as standard bearer. From the French, corresponding to insignia.

Fanny Adams, n., sailor slang for canned meat, 1889. From the name of a woman murdered in 1867.

fighting top, n., platform around the mast of a warship used by marines and sailors to fire down on opposing ships, 1896.

first rate, adj., describing the most powerful warships, the Royal Navy categorized ships into six rates according to the number of guns carried on board. Also second rate, third rate, etc.

forecastle, n., a raised deck in the bow of a warship, used as height to dominate opposing ships, as if it were a castle. Often spelled fo’c’sle to reflect the nautical pronunciation.

frigate, n., a warship rated just below a ship of the line, 1630. In earlier use to refer to a light, fast vessel. The etymology is unknown.

(to be continued next week)

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