Archive for the ‘sea’ Category


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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This week’s word is grunkle. I came across it in the excellent book of coastal tall tales and superstitions of the British Isles, “The Fabled Coast” by Kingshill and Westwood which I’m reading at the moment for some writing research. Research materials aren’t always half so well-written and interesting as this one.

Grunkle was a term they found used by fishermen for the snout of a pig. I’ve had a bit of poke around and can’t find it listed anywhere which surprises me as it certainly sounds like an excellent word for a truffle-snuffling-snout, one that could find an apple in an orchard in a trice. The reason for this, I suspect, is that it was local dialect.

Also, there was a seafarers’ superstition about seeing a pig (or any part of one) on the way down to set sail. If such a calamity would befall them, even a glimpse of a grunkle would be enough, then they’d return home and begin their voyage on a more auspicious day. They may have called the snout a grunkle so as to avoid even saying a porcine word.

Imagine ringing in to your workplace.

“Hello, Boss. I’m afraid I can’t come in to finish those reports/diagnoses/roofs/chapters today. I saw a grunkle on the way to the bus and I’m doomed if I come to work. I know you’ll understand. Seeya tomorrow.”

I’d love to see which box Human Resources would tick for that particular absence.

However I did find some grunkles online. There’s a character called Stan Grunkle in a cartoon my children like. He doesn’t look like a pig. A few people also claim it as a shortening of grand uncle. I like that one. He sounds like the sort of relative you might enjoy. He’d slip you some cash when he saw you and ruffle your hair.

So, it’s up to yourself. You can take grunkle and apply it to the next curly-tailed porker you meet or you can be nice to your Grand Uncle when you see him next. But do let me know if you use the grunkle excuse with your boss.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,


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This week’s words are flotsam and jetsam (an entry in my nautical series) because I’ve always wondered what each word means and how they differ.

She sells seashells...

She sells seashells…

Wikipedia came to my aid and explained that both flotsam and jetsam are technical maritime law terms indicating different types of shipwreck.

Flotsam is floating wreckage of a ship or its cargo e.g. a mast ripped off a yacht in a storm. It comes from Old English and German words for floating and its first known usage is 1607.

Jetsam is part of a ship, its equipment, or cargo which is cast overboard (jettisoned) deliberately in time of distress. It may then sink or wash ashore e.g. throwing an empty crate or water barrel overboard to lighten the load in a storm. It sounds like in extremis sea littering to me, but I’m no sailor. Jetsam is a variation of jettison and was first used c. 1591.

For completeness there is also lagan or ligan (cargo on the seabed which can be reclaimed) and derelict (cargo on the seabed which nobody has a hope of reclaiming).

As a keen beachcomber I’ve come across golf balls, tennis balls, more discarded plastic than I care for, trawlerman’s fish crates, washed up oars, children’s toys, spars of wood. Everything you can think of will be washed ashore at some point, I believe. Sadly I’ve yet to find an ancient Celtic artefact like the Tara brooch found on nearby Bettystown beach. But I live in hope as I scan the flotsam and jetsam.

Interested in the sea? Earlier items in the nautical series are baggywinkle, careen, gabion, and avast.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,


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Asgard II at Howth with Baggywinkles

Asgard II at Howth with Baggywrinkles


This week’s word is baggywrinkle which I found on the forums of my favourite writing site – Critique Circle. I loved the word on sight. Unfortunately I was unable to locate any origins or even date of first use for this term, but I like it even more now that I know it’s a nautical term and hence legitimate research for my coastal novels series (a.k.a. I had an excuse to browse sailing Web sites).

A baggywrinkle is a soft cover placed over a rope on a sailing vessel to stop the sails being chafed or damaged. You can see a picture here. I love the fact that the baggywrinkle is a seaman’s improvisation because they use old frayed ropes to protect the new ones. Very clever.

If you’re a boat owner and want to make one – there’s a great step-by-step with photos here.

Now if you’re strolling around a harbour or marina and spot a shaggy rope cushion strapped to some rigging, you can point knowledgeably and say – “See that? That’s a baggywrinkle” and wait for your companion to burst out laughing.

Until next time, happy reading, writing, and wordfooling by the sea,


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