Finding it was likely to overblow, we took in our sprit-sail, and stood by to hand the fore-sail; but making foul weather, we looked the guns were all fast, and handed the mizzen. The boat lay very broad off, so we thought it better spooning before the sea, than trying or hulling. We reefed the fore-sail and set him, we hauled aft the fore-sheet; the helm was hard a weather. The boat wore bravely. We belayed the fore-down haul; but the sail was split, and we hauled down the yard, and got the sail into the boat, and unbound all the things clear of it. It was a very fierce storm; the sea broke strange and dangerous.
--Gulliver's Travels--Jonathan Swift, 1726.
If you're reading Gulliver's Travels or Moby Dick, you could be at a loss as to what the narrators are describing if you don't know basic sailing terminology. Our language is peppered (or rather, salted) with expressions derived from life at sea. Thinking of the sea, you may picture whaling boats off Nantucket or Hawaii, warships during the Civil War, or merchant vessels carrying fertilized soil from the tropics to enrich the gardens of wealthy English farmers. However, much of the sailors' jargon that has entered and endured in our language came from the British navy. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, British naval and merchant ships dominated the oceans, developing their own culture with its own customs, practices, and language.
In these centuries of global exploration and commerce, boys and men, many of them illiterate, went off to sea and spent years away from home under dangerous conditions. Order and discipline were important in minimizing risk as was communication aboard ship, which had to be crystal clear. For example, different pitches of the boatswain's whistle meant different things: a call for attention, dismissal, or "piping" someone aboard. Shouted instructions often did not carry well against the noise of wind and waves, but voice commands to change the direction of sails had to be carried out immediately, whether to avoid collision with other ships in naval battles, to sail through a typhoon, or to stay on course. Also important to the orderly life of a ship was proper naming, accounting for, stowing of, and using gear.
Many terms remain in our language as a colorful legacy of the great sailing eras of history. Weekend sailors on the Chesapeake Bay and competitors in the heat of an America's Cup race use the same terms. And what teacher has not tried to get a classroom "shipshape" or commanded, "Pipe down?"
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