Friday, May 09, 2008


I quoted a sailing manual in a post the other day, and I've been reading more. Much of the terminology is absolutely functional - you have to distinguish between ropes with different functions (halyards that pull sails up, sheets that control them, the painter that you tie the boat up with, and stays and shrouds that hold up the mast). And 'left' and 'right' don't really cut it when everyone on the boat is facing in a different direction. 'Port' and 'starboard' are relative to the boat itself, not the way you happen to be standing.

But it seems to me that quite a bit of nautical writing goes a little too far. It's the verbal equivalent of the gadgetry that boat owners love to buy. We love to rummage around for interesting pieces of kit - some of us want the high tech stuff, others are strictly traditional. But a lot of it is designed for selling not for using.

Verbal chandlery might describe words that are lovely to have, and to bring out from time to time, but which are not strictly necessary.

The best ones are made from wood and brass. Like the word 'witnesseth' that my solicitor included in a lease he's just drafted. Or the word 'thusly' that appeared twice in a student dissertation I've just marked.