Archive for the ‘sea’ Category


The recent outcry about workplace harassment reminded me of the interesting history of the phrase “making a pass at somebody”. While the two things should be entirely different, of course, it’s undeniable that there’s now concern that making the first move romantically could cause trouble if either party is reading the signals wrong and this has been true with this phrase from the very beginning.

There are two possible sources for this phrase, both of them more military than romantic.

To make a pass in swordplay is to make a lunge or thrust and it’s used with this meaning in “Hamlet” in 1604.

This very likely entered military parlance from the high seas during the Age of Sail where making a pass wasn’t between two combatants but between warships according to “Sticklers, Sideburns and Bikinis” by Graeme Donald. The ships would make a side by side pass of each other to enable the captains to assess their gun-power. This would sometimes involve firing at the same time because the guns were primarily mounted in the sides of the ships. To fire a broadside, the ships had to be roughly parallel.

This nautical origin for the phrase isn’t listed in any of the dictionaries I checked but does seem reasonable. Sailors could easily have brought the term ashore to their notorious romantic lives when the mutual “checking out” was a precursor to a dalliance if acceptable to both parties.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and nautical wordfooling,


p.s. I’ve made it to 27,000 words in NaNoWriMo. If you’re trying it this year I hope your story is flowing well.


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This week’s word is groin, or groyne. A groin is a long narrow structure in coastal engineering built out into the water to prevent beach erosion by trapping sand. It stabilises the beach on the updrift side but may cause issues in the other direction. As a result they are often built in groups known as groin fields.

Groins (pronunciation here) aren’t that common on the Irish coastline. There’s a small timber groin field at Malahide in Dublin and I also spotted some at Curracloe Beach in Wexford earlier this summer (see above) although these ones, made from tree trunks taken from the local pine forest, were not perpendicular to the shore, but parallel, to conserve the large dune network.

Even if you haven’t visited Curracloe yourself, you may have seen it on the big screen thanks to the amazing opening minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” and the beach-date scene in “Brooklyn”. The groins weren’t visible in either but those soldiers struggled almost as much as I did to climb the dunes. Mercifully I wasn’t under fire at the time.

Groin joined the English language in the 1500s as a dialect word meaning “snout”. That in turn came from Old French groign and Latin words grunium “pig’s snout” and grunnire a verb meaning “to grunt”. The next time I spy a line of timber posts running out to sea to disrupt erosion I will think of the land as snuffling its way out into the pig trough of waves.

One interesting side note – there’s some debate about the spelling – groin or groyne. Wikipedia and the Oxford English Dictionary think the spelling in the US is groin versus groyne in British English. I’ve never seen groyne in a lifetime of reading British English and even the Encyclopedia Britannica thinks the British spelling is groin. Perhaps groyne is being eroded on this side of the Atlantic?

Until next time happy reading, writing, and Wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Wordfoolery was gallivanting last week but as always I had my ear tuned in for unusual words. Amongst other nautical locations (my DS now blanches if I mention nautical history or maritime festivals) we took the excellent tour of the Dunbrody Famine Ship which is moored in New Ross, Co. Wexford.

The Dunbrody

Having studied the Great Famine (1844-1849) endlessly during school lessons in Ireland, I thought I knew everything about the ships dubbed “coffin ships” that stacked the emigrants high and shipped them from Ireland to Britain, Canada, America and elsewhere in search of survival. I was keen to see the ship however as she was built about 20 years ago by volunteers to be a total replica of the original 1844 Dunbrody, no mean feat when the skills to create tall-ships are increasingly lost to us.

She’s a fine ship, despite the dark history she illustrates. The mortality rate on the voyages was about 30% but it was still better odds than staying in Ireland where the population dropped by 50% in the five years of that famine (there were many other famines in Ireland in the 1800s).

The engaging, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable guide, who happily handled queries on the wider historic context of the famine and ship, decided to involve the younger members of my party in demonstrating life on board. DD got to stir the oatmeal/porridge on the deck’s brazier but DS got the plum job, he was handed a wooden bucket and challenged to handle it. Holding it at arm’s length he guessed it was the ship’s bathroom facilities and mimed tossing it overboard, after being advised to check which way the wind was blowing first.

Bathroom or Scuttlebutt?

I hoped the bucket wasn’t dual purpose, both for fresh and shall we say “used” water? If so it would be a primitive scuttlebutt. Butt is an old word for a barrel or cask, nothing to do with your rear. To scuttle something is to cut a hole in it – for example to hole the hull of a ship in order to sink it. The two together describe a cask or bucket with a lid. The lid had a hole in it so sailors could scoop out water using a drinking cup, but without allowing flies or dirt into the cask.

The scuttlebutt was a place to congregate and exchange news from the 1700s on board ships, hence its meaning as gossip or insider news. It crossed over to landlubber use c. 1950s. The modern equivalent would be water-cooler-gossip and an eponymous version exists in Australia with the furphy (whose story I explore in my book “How to Get Your Name in the Dictionary” – coming later this year).

If you’re visiting the south-east of Ireland and have an interest in history, I can recommend the tour, just be careful of what way the wind is blowing.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (a.k.a. Wordfoolery)

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I finally made a visit to the National Maritime Museum of Ireland in Dun Laoghaire last weekend, with family in tow, so it’s time for another entry in Wordfoolery’s Nautical Series – tonne.

anchor When over-burdened with shopping (or an anchor like this lovely example outside the museum) I’d often say that it weighed a tonne. However I’ve edited the phrase out of my writing because I couldn’t get clarity on the correct spelling (tonne or ton?).

Imagine my surprise to find a detailed explanation of the phrase when researching for my coastal novels in the museum. Tonne comes from the idea of a ship’s tonnage but has little to do with the weight of the ship. Tonnage, or as it was originally know tunnage, was measured for tax purposes and related to the number of tuns of wine the ship could carry. All good ships transport nothing but wine, of course.

One tun held 252 gallons of wine (tax-men despise even numbers) which is approximately 1,150 litres or 2,2,40 pounds of weight. So when I said my bags weighed a tonne, I should have said they weighed a tun, although I’m not strong enough to lift 2,240 pounds of groceries, or wine!

Pirate Captain Grace

Pirate Captain Grace

If you want to get into nautical detail the gross tonnage of the ship is the volume of its cargo space while deadweight tonnage (DWT) refers not to – “Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum” – but to the total weight of passengers, cargo, fuel, stores minus the weight of the ship herself.

As for the origin of tun as a word, that has the fingerprints of many languages – Old English tunne, Old Frisian tunne, Middle Dutch tonne, Old High German tunna, German tonne, Latin tunna, Old French tonne and possibly even Middle Irish tunna and toun (meaning hide or skin). I’ve noticed that words relating to ships often have a mixed source like this. I assume this is because the ships and their sailors moved around, pilfering words from languages when it helped them communicate with their polyglot crews and traders. Seas are fertile places for creating vocabulary.

If you’re visiting Dublin, I can heartily recommend a visit to the maritime museum in Dun Laoghaire (just hop on a DART train out from the city centre) – there are great hands-on exhibits for the kids and it’s small enough for the whole family to avoid museum fatigue. Run by volunteers (hence the reasonable entry fee), it is crammed with details on the huge and varied contributions made by the Irish to seafaring life – inventing submarines, founding several nation’s navies, shipwrecks, polar exploration, Atlantic cable-laying, the Beaufort scale, and I discovered Marconi had an Irish mother.

Museum Teddy wasn't sure about this whole breeches buoy thing

Museum Teddy wasn’t sure about this whole breeches buoy thing

They were even kind enough to indulge my curious children by showing how the museum’s teddy travels between ships by breeches buoy.

Until next time, happy reading,writing, and wordfooling,


Please don’t forget to vote today for Wordfoolery in the Arts&Culture section of the Irish Blog Awards – thanks!


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This week’s word is binnacle (pronunciation here), again inspired by a recent trip on USS Intrepid in NYC. I find nautical words fascinating, it truly is another language and unless you sail (which, sadly, I don’t thanks to motion sickness even on dry land) the words are full of mystery.

Binnacle from the Terra Nova

Binnacle from the Terra Nova

A binnacle is the wooden housing for a ship’s compass. Jack Sparrow carries his magical compass about with him but typically on ships you want it on the bridge, neatly nested in a binnacle, ready for use by captain or helm. The last thing you want is the compass to go missing in a storm or worse, overboard.

Why wooden? Well remember that compasses use magnetism, so metal probably wouldn’t be such a great idea, unless they are non magnetic, of course. Brass isn’t magnetic, as you can see in the binnacle from the Terra Nova on the left.

The word history of binnacle is a mini history of seafaring. As usual we start with those pesky Romans. They gave us habitaculum as the word for lodge or dwelling place from their verb habitare (to inhabit) and it’s easy to see its influence on modern words like habitation or inhabit.

Next step is bitácula (Spanish) and bitacola (Portugese) and bittacle (old English) by the 1620s. It’s clear to see those are all cousin words and yes, they all mean binnacle because by this point – high in the Age of Sail – these three nations and their huge merchant and naval fleets were exploring the world on ships and needed compasses to do so.

By the 1700s, all three words had merged, in English at least, to become binnacle – the little wooden dwelling place for the compass on a ship.

By the way, even if you can’t chart a course to NYC, the National Maritime Museum of Ireland is in Dun Laoghaire and has free guided tours on Mondays throughout the summer so you won’t need a compass, or binnacle, to get around the exhibits.

Until next time, happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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It’s day 10 and in one sense I’m hitting my stride but in another way I’m heading into the toughest week of the NaNoWriMo challenge. It’s when the initial rush of enthusiasm for a project can fizzle out. Of those who start Nano, sadly, an awful lot of them drop out this week.

As ML (organiser) for my local region my job is to try and keep them writing with pep-talk emails and writing sessions, word sprints, word wars, plot dares, and general cheerleading. As a writer I have to do that for myself. I’ve had novels shudder to a halt on chapter eight too, I’m far from immune. Real life has a tendency to interrupt at this point too.

I’m still outlining at the same time as writing (not recommended) but at least I worked out, while weeding my garden on Sunday, how the female lead’s story arc in the contemporary story is going to resolve. That’s helpful. You see that’s the thing, you can’t write constantly during the month. Your brain needs downtime and your family probably need some attention here and there too (ignore the housework, as one wrimo told me this month, it can prove to be fatal).

Taking the time to garden, assemble our new table, and cook a beef bourgignon stew served in crusty loaf helped my brain to rest and that’s why I got the plot idea. Getting that writing-to-life balance correct this month is key to success. If you take too much time off from writing, it’s tough to restart but if you write too hard you may burn out. In my case if I spend too long working out where the flares are kept on an Atlantic 75 inshore lifeboat or how many ordinary sailors would be needed to unfurl the top-sail on an Armada galleon then I’ll never get my draft written so I have to get the writing-research balance right too.

If you’re writing this month – keep going. Week three is much easier, I promise.

Grace (19,736 words so far – my contemporary heroine has just been dunked in the Altantic on her first lifeboat training session by a crew that hates her)


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Long time readers will know that every November Wordfoolery does NaNoWriMo – a month long challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel in just 30 days. I’m also a municipal liaison (organiser) for Ireland North East region in this worldwide challenge, so I host writing sessions, create pep talks for my region, and generally cheerlead my local writers. It’s a busy month and as a result I don’t blog about unusual words during November.

So what am I writing this year?

Amy Johnston is the last of the Johnston line, whose motto is Never Unprepared. But when she inherits a rundown castle in the West coast town of Castle Cove, she is unprepared for everything and the locals aren’t happy to see her, even when she joins the local lifeboat crew. As she and her chef husband restore the castle and its gardens she gradually uncovers her family’s link to the Spanish Armada and several skeletons in their past. But can she make amends for the actions of her ancestors?

This is the second book in the Castle Cove novel series  – set on the West coast of Ireland and pairing a contemporary story with a coastal focus with a linked story set in Ireland’s turbulent past. This time, the wreck of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

With plenty of history research still to complete, I’m working on the contempory story first and fleshing out the outline for the Armada story as I go along. But it’s fun to be back in Castle Cove with some of the characters from the first novel “The Lightkeeper’s Diary”.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (Day 3: 4,091 words and counting)

p.s. I know some of my Johnston cousins read the blog now and then. I’m afraid the family castle is pure fiction, sorry!


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