Posts Tagged ‘age of sail’


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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Asgard II at Howth


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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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 bit├ícula (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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