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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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