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Archive for the ‘coastal’ Category

Hello,

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,

Grace

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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Hello,

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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Hello,

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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Asgard II at Howth

Hello,

This week’s word is thanks to Terry Breverton’s excellent non-fiction tome “Nautical Curiosities” which I recently finished reading with a fistful of inspirations for my coastal novel series and for this blog. There may be a flood of nautical words on the horizon, you have been warned.

I’ll begin with gollywobbler because it’s such a ridiculous word. The gollywobbler is a “large square staysail hoisted between the masts of schooner in a reaching wind to increase speed”. As a motion-sickness-afflicted landlubber myself I scurried to the dictionary to understand that description. I’ll enlighten you as best I can.

A staysail is a fore and aft sail set on lines that run diagonally downward from a mast. These lines (what sailors call ropes) are called stays, hence the name. Unlike the square-rigged sails on a schooner, staylines are in line with the keel of the boat, i.e. at right angles to the rest of the sails. Thus, presumably, they catch wind from other directions and increase the ship’s speed. A reaching wind comes side-on to the boat and the staysails are perfectly positioned to use a reaching wind. Gollywobblers are still used on sailing boats today and there’s even a series of wines named after them.

The origin of gollywobbler is, sadly, unknown, but I imagine that running aloft to hoist one would have been a wobbly and rather terrifying task on the taller of the tall-ships. The gollywobbler is believed to have given rise to the expression “I have the collywobbles” which means to be afraid.

In other news this week, I’ve finished the major editing on my book about the fascinating people behind eponyms “How to Get Your Name into the Dictionary”. Now begins the the fine edits and work with the proof-reader and cover-designer. I’ll keep you posted on progress. If any of you review books, let me know in the comments or @Wordfoolery on twitter and I’ll send an ARC your way.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Hello,

After a relatively mild winter, the storms of spring recently landed here in Ireland. I’m lucky to be on the East coast (away from the wildest of the Atlantic winds and generally the worst of the weather) but Storm Doris still managed to pop out four of our garden fence panels and blasted trees, trampolines, roof-tiles, and electricity wires down around the village.

Anchors away

Anchors away

So when I read stories this week of windjammers in Breverton’s “Nautical Curiosities” I had to find out how they got their name. Terry Breverton tells me that “windjammer was a derogatory term among steamship crew for any square-rigged sailing ship”. Merriam-Webster adds that the term arose in the 1880s.

Windjammer is a collective name for various types of square-rigged sailing ships built in the late 1800s to carry large amounts of bulk cargo such as timber, grain, or ore, between continents using the prevailing winds. They’re not the same as the earlier sailing ships, the clippers, which carried less and traveled faster. Windjammers had between three and five masts and often circumnavigated the globe on their voyages.

The steamship crews didn’t need to mock the windjammers. Once steam was perfected the days of sail were, sadly, numbered. The steam ships could round Cape Horn (the tip of South America) in 1,000 miles but under sail it would take 1,500 miles. Heading east, with the winds, that would take a week. Heading west, against the winds, that could take two or even three weeks. In 1914 the Edward Sewall took 67 days, twice being blasted back to a position she’d already passed and finally covering 5,000 miles in the trip.

There are two stories about the origin of the word windjammer. The first, and most likely to be true, is that it came from English – the sails “jammed” the wind, i.e. blocked it, because there were so many of them.

The second while less likely to be correct, has a certain romance to it. The idea is that the word comes from Dutch and German verb jammern which means to wail and refers to the sound of strong winds blowing through all that rigging.

Happy wordfooling this week and if the winds pick up, jump on a windjammer,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I’ve just joined Instagram. I’m posting photos of historic spots in Ireland (and on my travels). If your instagram passion is history – let me know and I’ll follow.

p.p.s. To readers in the UK and Ireland – Happy World Book Day on Thursday!

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distress-signalsHello,

Despite spending a significant amount of time teaching Beaver Scouts and Scouts the basics of distress signals over the last five years I was surprised to discover the origin of the mayday call recently.

Mayday is the international radio distress call for help and is used to indicate there is an immediate danger of loss of life, for example a ship that is sinking. It is used primarily by aviators and mariners.

Like other distress signals, such as whistle blasts and piles of rocks, it is always transmitted in groups of three.

It originates from the French phrase “m-aidez” which means “help me” and isn’t as old a call as I’d thought.

Mayday originated in 1923 in Croydon, London. Frederick Stanley Mockford, a senior radio operator at Croydon airport, was asked to think of a word to indicate emergency that could be easily understood by pilots and ground staff. As most flights were between Croydon and Paris, he picked “m’aider” (short for “venez m’aider” – come and help me). In 1927 the voice call mayday on radio replaced the Morse Code SOS on telegraph as the standard distress call. Croydon Airport, replaced by Heathrow, closed in 1959.

Interestingly, a false mayday call in the US is punishable by up to six years in jail and/or a quarter of a million dollar fine.

Until next time I hope you have no reason to call mayday,

Grace (@ Wordfoolery)

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Asgard II at Howth

Asgard II at Howth

Hello,

This week’s words – grommet and idler – have a nautical flavour, but I never knew they had marine roots, or is that depths?

I thought a grommet was another word for a widget – a small useful gadget, but actually they were ship’s boys, apprentices who did menial tasks aboard. The name comes from Spanish grumete (a novice seaman) and the term was originally applied to boys from the Cinque Ports who tended the ship when she was in port.

The Cinque Ports (French for Five Ports) were a medieval group of ports in Southern England who furnished men and repairs to the British fleet up to the time of the Spanish Armada when silting of the harbours limited their usefulness.

A useful junior sidekick certainly explains why Aardman named Wallace’s loyal canine pal Gromit. If you haven’t seen Wallace & Gromit, then I heartily recommend any of their animated movies. A more common usage of grommet is for a metal eyelet or a small gadget inserted in the ear, but I like the idea of a grommet scampering around sailing ships and making themselves useful.

You might think that idlers would be the opposite of grommets. Nowadays an idler is someone who shirks work, but in original 1700s usage an idler was a crew-member who worked regular daytime hours on the ship – a carpenter, sail-maker, or surgeon – and hence was spared the night watches. They were idle during the night, hence idlers.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (neither a grommet nor an idler)

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