Saturday, August 15, 2009

`Whips and Puddings'

This morning we cruised yard sales, the sink hole of American commerce, and my brother picked up 22 LPs for 25 cents apiece. I was tempted by a paperback selection of De Quincey's work but it was marred by underlinings and witless emendations (“Symbolism!”). For three dollars I picked up four pieces of sheet music (“Kentucky Echoes,” words and music by L. Wolfe Gilbert and Riley Reilly) and nine Life magazines from the forties and fifties. Reading Life is always reassuring, a reminder of when the United States seemed like one country. The April 27, 1953, issue, with Elizabeth II's coronation on the cover, includes a nine-page profile of Ezra Pound's alma mater, Hamilton College, in Clinton, N.Y. A two-page spread titled “Laughter and Wisdom in the Lecture Room” quotes Prof. Robert Rudd on John Aubrey:

“John Aubrey, who wrote Brief Lives, was one of those people who went to country houses for the weekend, stayed sober, then went up to his room and wrote down what everyone had said. Very reprehensible.”

My brother is more gifted than I at perusing yard sales. On a table in his back yard I found two of his recent finds. Poland (2001), with text by Roman Marcinek, consists mostly of color photographs of that unexpectedly beautiful nation. The first sentence of the introduction is enticing: “History is best appreciated in the places where it was made – palace chambers, cathedral naves, castle courtyards, merchant houses, university colleges, monastery cloisters.”

The second book I dawdled over in the afternoon was Sailor's Language by W. Clark Russell, published in 1883 by Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington (Crown Buildings, 188, Fleet Street). I love lexicons, in particular those devoted to the specialized language of trades. The epigraph is from Maryat's 1834 novel Peter Simple:

“In short, what with dead-eyes and shrouds, cats and cat-blocks, dolphins and dolphin-strikers, whips and puddings, I was so puzzled with what I heard that I was about to leave the deck in absolute despair. `And, Mr. Chucks, recollect this afternoon that you bleed all the buoys.'”

Here's a sampler from Russell's dictionary:

Druxy: “Plank or timber in a decayed or spongy state.”

Grass-comber: “A countryman shipped as a sailor.”

Jibber the ribber: “A wrecker's trick of luring a ship to destruction by showing a false light.”

Rogue's yarn: “A yarn in a rope for detecting its theft.”

Russell, whose other books include A Sailor's Sweetheart and John Holdsworth (Chief Mate), would have made excellent company. He tells us in his preface:

“ is certain that if a sailor has to talk about his calling, he must use the language of the sea. There are no synonyms for `sister-blocks,' `kevels,' `sennit,' `girt-line' and `French-fake,' and the rest of the vocabulary. If a lawyer cannot understand how the bight of a rope can be whipped into a snatch-block without passing the end through the sheave, there is nothing in language outside the terms of marine statements of the process to enable him to master the sailor's meaning.”

I've never heard it put more succinctly. As a bonus, tucked into the pages of Sailor's Language is “Passing of the Backhouse,” a poem about outhouses (privies, the jakes) by James Whitcomb Riley. Someone took the trouble to type the six-stanza poem on a sheet of rice paper. This is the final line:

“I'm now a man, but none the less, I'll try the children's hole.”


jeff mauvais said...

I spent my Saturdays last winter training to become a crewman on a tall ship. I'm not sure which was more daunting: the language or the knots. You've got to know both instinctively when a sudden squall approaches a ship in full sail.

English sailor's language is an exotic tangle of Anglo-Saxon roots. Struggling with it the night before a test, I realized that an 18th-century French sailor might well have understood more words on the streets of London than on a British ship of the line.

Anonymous said...

"One country" terms of what?