The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 02, No. 12, October, 1858 online

. (page 11 of 20)
Online LibraryVariousThe Atlantic Monthly, Volume 02, No. 12, October, 1858 → online text (page 11 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

The limpid stream with loving lips.
It holds the blood of sun and star,
And all pure essences that are:
No fruit so high on the heavenly vine,
Whose golden hanging clusters shine
On the far-off shadowy midnight hills,
But some sweet influence it distils
That slideth down the silvery rills.
Here Wisdom drowned her dangerous thought,
The early gods their secrets brought;
Beauty, in quivering lines of light,
Ripples before the ravished sight;
And the unseen mystic spheres combine
To charm the cup and drug the wine.

All day I drink of the wine and deep
In its stainless waves my senses steep;
All night my peaceful soul lies drowned
In hollows of the cup profound;
Again each morn I clamber up
The emerald crater of the cup,
On massive knobs of jasper stand
And view the azure ring expand:
I watch the foam-wreaths toss and swim
In the wine that o'erruns the jewelled rim,
Edges of chrysolite emerge,
Dawn-tinted, from the misty surge;
My thrilled, uncovered front I lave,
My eager senses kiss the wave,
And drain, with its viewless draught, the lore
That warmeth the bosom's secret core,
And the fire that maddens the poet's brain
With wild sweet ardor and heavenly pain.


Every calling has something of a special dialect. Even where there is,
one would think, no necessity for it, as in the conversation of
Sophomores, sporting men, and reporters for the press, a dialect is
forthwith partly invented, partly suffered to grow, and the sturdy stem
of original English exhibits a new crop of parasitic weeds which often
partake of the nature of fungi and betoken the decay of the trunk
whence they spring.

Is this the case with the language of the sea? Has the sea any
language? or has each national tongue grafted into it the technology of
the maritime calling?

The sea has its own laws, - the common and unwritten law of the
forecastle, of which Admiralty Courts take infrequent cognizance, and
the law of the quarter-deck, which is to be read in acts of Parliament
and statutes of Congress. The sea has its own customs, superstitions,
traditions, architecture, and government; wherefore not its own
language? We maintain that it has, and that this tongue, which is not
enumerated by Adelung, which possesses no grammar and barely a lexicon
of its own, and which is not numbered among the polyglot achievements
of Mezzofanti or Burritt, has yet a right to its place among the
world's languages.

Like everything else which is used at sea, - except salt-water, - its
materials came from shore. As the ship is originally wrought from the
live-oak forests of Florida and the pine mountains of Norway, the iron
mines of England, the hemp and flax fields of Russia, so the language
current upon her deck is the composite gift of all sea-loving peoples.
But as all these physical elements of construction suffer a sea-change
on passing into the service of Poseidon, so again the landward phrases
are metamorphosed by their contact with the main. But no one set of
them is allowed exclusive predominance. For the ocean is the only true,
grand, federative commonwealth which has never owned a single master.
The cloud-compelling Zeus might do as he pleased on land; but far
beyond the range of outlook from the white watch-tower of Olympus
rolled the immeasurable waves of the wine-purple deep, acknowledging
only the Enosigaios Poseidon. Consequently, while Zeus allotted to this
and that hero and demigod Argos and Mycene and the woody Zacynthus,
each to each, the ocean remained unbounded and unmeted. Nation after
nation, race after race, has tried its temporary lordship, but only at
the pleasure of the sea itself. Sometimes the ensign of sovereignty has
been an eagle, sometimes a winged lion, - now a black raven, then a
broom, - to-day St. Andrew's Cross, to-morrow St George's, perhaps the
next a starry cluster. There is no permanent architecture of the main
by which to certify the triumphs of these past invaders. Their ruined
castles are lying "fifty fathom deep," - Carthaginian galley and Roman
trireme, the argosy of Spain, the "White Ship" of Fitz Stephen, the
"Ville de Paris," down to the latest "non-arrival" whispered at
Lloyd's, - all are gone out of sight into the forgotten silences of the
green underworld. Upon the land we can trace Roman and Celt, Saxon and
Norman, by names and places, by minster, keep, and palace. This one
gave the battlement, that the pinnacle, the other the arch. But the
fluent surface of the sea takes no such permanent impression. Gone are
the quaint stern-galleries, gone the high top-gallant fore-castles,
gone the mighty banks of oars of the olden time. It is only in the
language that we are able to trace the successive nations in their
march along the mountain waves; for to that each has from time to time
given its contribution, and of each it has worn the seeming stamp, till
some Actium or Lepanto or Cape Trafalgar has compelled its reluctant
transfer to another's hands.

Or rather, we may say, the language of the sea comes and makes a part,
as it were, of the speech of many different nations, as the sailor
abides for a season in Naples, Smyrna, Valparaiso, Canton, and New
York, - and from each it borrows, as the sailor does, from this a silk
handkerchief, from that a cap, here a brooch, and there a scrap of
tattooing, but still remains inhabitant of all and citizen of
none, - the language of the seas.

What do we mean by this? It is that curious nomenclature which from
truck to keelson clothes the ship with strange but fitting
phrases, - which has its proverbs, idioms, and forms of expression that
are of the sea, salt, and never of the land, earthy. Wherever tidewater
flows, goes also some portion of this speech. It is "understanded of
the people" among all truly nautical races. It dominates over their own
languages, so that the Fin and Mowree, (Maori,) the Lascar and the
Armorican, meeting on the same deck, find a common tongue whereby to
carry on the ship's work, - the language in which to "hand, reef, and

Whence did it come? From all nautical peoples. Not from the Hebrew
race. To them the possession of the soil was a fixed idea. The sea
itself had nothing wherewith to tempt them; they were not adventurers
or colonizers; they had none of that accommodating temper as to creed,
customs, and diet, which is the necessary characteristic of the sailor.
But the nations they expelled from Canaan, the worshippers of the
fish-tailed Dagon, who fled westward to build Tartessus (Tarshish) on
the Gaditanian peninsula, or who clung with precarious footing to the
sea-shore of Philistia and the rocky steeps of Tyre and Sidon, - these
were seafarers. From them their Greek off-shoots, the Ionian islanders,
inherited something of the maritime faculty. There are traces in the
"Odyssey" of a nautical language, of a technology exclusively belonging
to the world "off soundings," and an exceeding delight in the rush and
spray-flinging of a vessel's motion, -

"The purple wave hissed from the bow of the
bark in its going."

Hence the Greek is somewhat of a sailor to this day, and in many a
Mediterranean port lie sharp and smartly-rigged brigantines with
classic names of old Heathendom gilt in pure Greek type upon their

But the Greek and Carthaginian elements of the ocean language must now
lie buried very deep in it, and it is hard to recognize their original
image and superscription in those smooth-worn current coins which form
the basis of the sea-speech. It is not within the limits of a cursory
paper like this to enter into too deep an investigation, or to trace
perhaps a fanciful lineage for such principal words as "mast," and
"sail," and "rope." In one word, "anchor," the Greek plainly
survives, - and doubtless many others might be made out by a skilful

The Roman, to whom the empire of the sea, or, more properly speaking,
the petty principality of the Mediterranean, was transferred, had
little liking for that sceptre. He was driven to the water by sheer
necessity, but he never took to it kindly. He was at best a
sea-soldier, a marine, not brought up from the start in the
merchant-service and then polished into the complete blue-jacket and
able seaman of the navy. Nobody can think of those ponderous old
Romans, whose comedies were all borrowed from Attica, whose poems were
feeble echoes of the Greek, and whose architecture, art, and domestic
culture were at best the work of foreign artists, - nobody can think of
them at sea without a quiet chuckle at the inevitable consequences of
the first "reef-topsail breeze." Fancy those solemn, stately
Patricians, whose very puns are ponderous enough to set their galleys a
streak deeper in the water, fancy them in a brisk sea with a nor'wester
brewing to windward, watching off the port of Carthage for Admiral
Hasdrubal and his fleet to come out. They were good hand-to-hand
fighters, - none better; and so they won their victories, no doubt; but,
having won them, they dropped sea-going, and made the conquered nations
transport their corn and troops, while they went back to their
congenial camps and solemn Senate-debates.

But Italy was not settled by the Roman alone. A black-haired,
fire-eyed, daring, flexible race had colonized the Sicilian Islands,
and settled thickly around the Tarentine Gulf, and built their cities
up the fringes of the Apennines as far as the lovely Bay of Parthenope.
Greek they were, - by tradition the descendants of those who took
Troy-town, - Greek they are to this day, as any one may see who will
linger on the Mole or by the Santa Lucia Stairs at Naples. At Salerno,
at Amalfi, were cradled those fishing-hamlets which were to nurse
seamen, and not soldiers. Far up the Adriatic, the storm of Northern
invasion had forced a fair-haired and violet-eyed folk into the
fastnesses of the lagoons, to drive their piles and lay their keels
upon the reedy islets of San Giorgio and San Marco; while on the
western side an ancient Celtic colony was rising into prominence, and
rearing at the foot of the Ligurian Alps the palaces of Genoa the

Thus upon the Italian stock was begun the language of the seas. Upon
the Italian main the words "tack" and "sheet," "prow" and "poop," were
first heard; and those most important terms by which the law of the
marine highway is given, - "starboard" and "larboard." For if, after the
Italian popular method, we contract the words _questo bordo_ (this
side) and _quello bordo_ (that side) into _sto bordo_ and _lo bordo_,
we have the roots of our modern phrases. And so the term "port," which
in naval usage supersedes "larboard," is the abbreviated _porta lo
timone_, (carry the helm,) which, like the same term in military usage,
"port arms," seems traditionally to suggest the left hand.

But while the Italian races were beginning their brief but brilliant
career, there was in training a nobler and hardier race of seamen, from
whose hands the helm would not so soon be wrested. The pirates of the
Baltic were wrestling with the storms of the wild Cattegat and braving
the sleety squalls of the Skager Rack, stretching far out from the land
to colonize Iceland and the Faroes, to plant a mysteriously lost nation
in Eastern Greenland, and to leave strange traces of themselves by the
vine-clad shores of Narraganset Bay. For, first of all nations and
races to steer boldly into the deep, to abandon the timid fashion of
the Past, which groped from headland to headland, as boys paddle skiffs
from wharf to wharf, the Viking met the blast and the wave, and was no
more the slave, but the lord of the sea. He it was, who, abandoning the
traditionary rule which loosened canvas only to a wind dead aft or well
on the quarter, learned to brace up sharp on a wind and to baffle the
adverse airs. Yet he, too, was overmuch a fighter to make a true
seaman, and his children no sooner set foot on the shore than they drew
their swords and went to carving the conquered land into Norman
lordships. But where they piloted the way others followed, and city
after city along the German Ocean and upon the British coasts became
also maritime. For King Alfred had come, and the English oaks were
felled, and their gnarled boughs found exceedingly convenient for the
curved knees of ships. Upon the Italian stock became engrafted the
Norman, and French, and Danish, the North German and Saxon elements.
And so, after a century of crusading had thoroughly broken up the
stay-at-home notions of Europe, the maritime spirit blazed up. Spain
and Portugal now took the lead and were running races against each
other, the one in the Western, the other in the Eastern seas, and
flaunting their crowned flags in monopoly of the Indian archipelagos
and the American tropics. Just across the North Sea, over the low
sand-dykes of Holland, scarce higher than a ship's bulwarks, looked a
race whom the spleeny wits of other nations declared to be born
web-footed. Yet their sails were found in every sea, and, like resolute
merchants, as they were, they left to others the glory while they did
the world's carrying. Their impress upon the sea-language was neither
faint nor slight. They were true marines, and from Manhattan Island to
utmost Japan, the brown, bright sides, full bows, and bulwarks tumbling
home of the Dutchman were familiar as the sea-gulls. Underneath their
clumsy-looking upper-works, the lines were true and sharp; and but the
other day, when the world's clippers were stooping their lithe
racehorse-like forms to the seas in the great ocean sweepstakes, the
fleetest of all was - a Dutchman.

But to combine and fuse all these elements was the work of England. To
that nation, with its noble inheritance of a composite language,
incomparably rich in all the nomenclature of natural objects and
sounds, was given especially the coast department, so to speak, of
language. Every variety of shore, from shingly beaches to craggy
headlands, was theirs. While the grand outlines and larger features are
Italian, such as Cape, Island, Gulf, the minuter belong to the Northern
races, who are closer observers of Nature's nice differences, and who
take more delight in a frank, fearless acquaintance and fellowship with
out-door objects. Beach, sand, headland, foreland, shelf, reef,
breaker, bar, bank, ledge, shoal, spit, sound, race, reach, are words
of Northern origin. So, too, the host of local names by which every
peculiar feature of shore-scenery is individualized, - as, for instance,
the Needles, the Eddystone, the Three Chimneys, the Hen and Chickens,
the Bishop and Clerks. The strange atmospheric phenomena, especially of
the tropics, have been christened by the Spaniard and Portuguese, the
Corposant, the Pampero, the Tornado, the Hurricane. Then follows a host
of words of which the derivation is doubtful, - such as sea, mist, foam,
scud, rack. Their monosyllabic character may only be the result of that
clipping and trimming which words get on shipboard. Your seaman's
tongue is a true bed of Procrustes for the unhappy words that roll over
it. They are docked without mercy, or, now and then, when not properly
mouth-filling, they are "spliced" with a couple of vowels. It is
impossible to tell the whys and wherefores of sea-prejudices.

We have now indicated the main sources of the ocean-language. As new
nations are received into the nautical brotherhood, and as new
improvements are made, new terms come in. The whole whaling diction is
the contribution of America, or rather of Nantucket, New Bedford, and
New London, aided by the islands of the Pacific and the mongrel Spanish
ports of the South Seas. Here and there an adventurous genius coins a
phrase for the benefit of posterity, - as we once heard a mate order a
couple of men to "go forrard and trim the ship's whiskers," to the
utter bewilderment of his captain, who, in thirty years' following of
the sea, had never heard the martingale chains and stays so designated.
But the source of the great body of the sea-language might be marked
out on the map by a current flowing out of the Straits of Gibraltar and
meeting a similar tide from the Baltic, the two encountering and
blending in the North Sea and circling Great Britain, while not
forgetting to wash the dykes of Holland as they go. How to distinguish
the work of each, in founding the common tongue, is not here our

It would be difficult to classify the words in nautical
use, - impossible here to do more than hint at such a possibility. A
specimen or two will show the situation of the present tongue, and the
blending process already gone through with. We need not dip for this so
far into the tar-bucket as to bother (_nauticè_, "galley") the
landsman. We will take terms familiar to all. The three masts of a ship
are known as "fore," "main," and "mizzen." Of these, the first is
English, the second Norman-French, the third Italian (_mezzano_). To go
from masts to sails, we have "duck" from the Swedish _duk_, and
"canvas" from the Mediterranean languages, - from the root _canna_, a
cane or reed, - thence a cloth of reeds or rushes, a mat-sail, - hence
any sail. Of the ends of a ship, "stern" is from the Saxon _stearn_,
steering-place; "stem," from the German _stamm_. The whole family of
ropes - of which, by the way, it is a common saying, that there are but
three to a ship, namely, _bolt_-rope, _bucket_-rope, and _man_-rope,
all the rest of the cordage being called by its special name, as
_tack_, _sheet_, _clew-line_, _bow-line_, _brace_, _shroud_, or
_stay_ - the whole family of ropes are akin only by marriage. "Cable" is
from the Semitic root _kebel_, to cord, and is the same in all nautical
uses. "Hawser" - once written _halser_ - is from the Baltic stock, - the
rope used for halsing or hauling along; while "painter," the small rope
by which a boat is temporarily fastened, is Irish, - from _painter_, a
snare. "Sheet" is Italian, - from _scotta_; "brace" French, and "stay"
English. "Clew" is Saxon; "garnet" (from _granato_, a fruit) is
Italian, - that is, the garnet- or pomegranate-shaped block fastened to
the clew or corner of the courses, and hence the rope running through
the block. Then we find in the materials used in stopping leaks the
same diversity. "Pitch" one easily gets from _pix_ (Latin); "tar" as
easily from the Saxon _tare_, _tyr_. "Junk," old rope, is from the
Latin _juncus_, a bulrush, - the material used along the Mediterranean
shore for calking; "oakum," from the Saxon _oecumbe_, or hemp. The verb
"calk" may come from the Danish _kalk_, chalk, - to rub over, - or from
the Italian _calafatare_. The now disused verb "to pay" is from the
Italian _pagare_; - it survives only in the nautical aphorism, "Here's
the Devil to _pay_," - that is, to pitch the ship, - "and no pitch hot."
In handing the sails, "to loose" is good English, - "to furl" is
Armorican, and belongs to the Mediterranean class of words. "To rake,"
which is applied to spars, is from the Saxon _racian_, to incline; - "to
steeve," which is applied to the bowsprit, and often pronounced
"stave," is from the Italian _stivare_. When we get below-decks, we
find "cargo" to be Spanish, - while "ballast" (from _bat_, a boat, and
_last_, a load) is Saxon. A ship in ballast comes from the Baltic, - a
vessel and cargo from the Bay of Biscay. Sailors must eat; but there is
a significant distinction between merchant-seamen and man-o'-war's-men.
The former is provided for at the "caboose," or "camboose," (Dutch,
_kombuis_); the latter goes to the "galley," (Italian, _galera_, in
helmet, primitively). This distinction is fast dying out, - the naval
term superseding the mercantile, - just as in America the title
"captain" has usurped the place of the more precise and orthodox term,
"master," which is now used only in law-papers. The "bowsprit" is a
compound of English and Dutch. The word "yard" is English; the word
"boom," Dutch. The word "reef" is Welsh, from _rhevu_, to thicken or
fold; "tack" and "sheet" are both Italian; "deck" is German. Other
words are the result of contractions. Few would trace in "dipsey," a
sounding-lead, the words "deep sea"; or in "futtocks" the combination
"foot-hooks," - the name of the connecting-pieces of the floor-timbers
of a ship. "Breast-hook" has escaped contraction. Sailors have, indeed,
a passion for metamorphosing words, - especially proper names. Those lie
a little out of our track; but two instances are too good to be
omitted: - The "Bellerophon," of the British navy, was always known as
the "Bully-ruffian," and the "Ville de Milan," a French prize, as the
"Wheel-'em-along." Here you have a random bestowal of names which seems
to defy all analysis of the rule of their bestowal.

If the reader inclines to follow up the scent here indicated, we can
add a hint or two which may be of service. We have shown the sources,
which should, for purposes of classification, be designated, not as
English, Italian, Danish, etc., but nautically, as Mediterranean,
Baltic, or Atlantic. These three heads will serve for general
classification, to which must be added a fourth or "off-soundings"
department, into which should go all words suggested by whim or
accidental resemblances, - such terms as "monkey-rail," "Turk's head,"
"dead-eye," etc., - or which get the name of an inventor, as a
"Matthew-Walker knot." More than that cannot well be given without
going into the whole detail of naval history, tactics, and science, - a
thing, of course, impossible here.

This brings us to another view of the subject, which may serve for
conclusion. A great many people take upon themselves to act for and
about the sailor, to preach to him, make laws for him, act as his
counsel, write tracts for him, and generally to look after his moral
and physical well-being. Now eleven out of every dozen of these are
continually making themselves ridiculous by an utter ignorance of all
nautical matters. They pick up a few worn-out phrases of sea-life,
which have long since left the forecastle, and which have been bandied
about from one set of landsmen to another, have been dropped by
sham-sailors begging on fictitious wooden-legs, then by small
sea-novelists, handed to smaller dramatists for the Wapping class of
theatres, to be by them abandoned to the smallest writers of pirate and
privateer tales for the Sunday press. And stringing these together,
with a hazy apprehension of their meaning, they think they are "talking
sailor" in great perfection. Now the sailor will talk with pleasure to
any straightforward and perfectly "green" landsman, and the two will
converse in an entirely intelligible manner. But confusion worse
confounded is the result of this ambitious ignorance, - confusion of
brain to the sailor, and confusion of face to the landsman.

For the sea has a language, beyond a peradventure, - an exceedingly
arbitrary, technical, and perplexing one, unless it be studied with the
illustrated grammar of the full-rigged ship before one, with the added
commentaries of the sea and the sky and the coast chart. To learn to
speak it requires about as long as to learn to converse passably in
French, Italian, or Spanish; and unless it be spoken well, it is
exceedingly absurd to any appreciative listener.

If you desire to study it philologically, after the living manner of
Dean Trench, it will well repay you. If you desire to use it as a
familiar vehicle of discourse, wherewith to impress the understanding
and heart of the sailor, you undertake a very difficult thing. For
though men are moved best by apt illustrations from the things familiar
to them, _un_apt illustrations most surely disgust them.

But if you earnestly desire it, we know of but one certain course,
which is best explained in a brief anecdote. An English gentleman, who
was in all the agonies of a rough and tedious passage from Folkestone
to Boulogne, was especially irritated by the aggravating nonchalance of
a fellow-passenger, who perpetrated all manner of bilious feats, in
eating, drinking, and smoking, unharmed. English reserve and the agony
of sea-sickness long contended in Sir John's breast. At last the latter
conquered, and, leaning from the window of his travelling-carriage,
which was securely lashed to the forward deck of the steamer, he
exclaimed, - "I say, d'ye know, I'd give a guinea to know your secret
for keeping well in this infernal Channel." The traveller solemnly
extended one hand for the money, and, as it dropped into his palm, with
the other shaded his mouth, that no portion of the oracle might fall on
unpaid-for ears, and whispered, - "Hark ye, brother, GO TO SEA TWENTY

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 11 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryVariousThe Atlantic Monthly, Volume 02, No. 12, October, 1858 → online text (page 11 of 20)