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Sailing Jargon

My brother, who’s done a lot of sailing and just got back from a trip in the Pacific, sent me a document that relates the sinking of the Concordia back in February of 2010, a tall ship used for education purposes that was full of Canadian high school students when it went down. The document is a dramatic read: the calm before the storm, the squall, the knockdown, the abandoning of the ship, the subsequent heroics. What also struck me about the tale, though, were the long stretches of sailing jargon, like this one:

The deep reefed mizzen and the full mainsail were then sheeted out to the maximum trim angle possible, just shy of chaffing on the port standing backstays. The yards were braced up one point (to a position one point (11.25 degrees) forward of square relative to the weather side of the ship.) Although they were not drawing well with the wind so far abaft the beam, the fore staysail and the inner jib were set to balance the sail plan as the breeze hauled ahead closer to or forward of the beam, as was expected as the wind backed ahead of the front.

Any idea what that means? Me neither. I can parse it well enough to figure out that it’s a technical description of how sails were being set, but I couldn’t tell you how or why. I can also figure out that the captain is establishing his credibility by showing his detailed responses to changing weather conditions. The account is a verbal squall of technical passages like this, which I admit I skimmed to get to the actual knock-down.

This passage demonstrates that jargon isn’t strictly Greco-Latinate, which I think is an assumption that frequently gets made. (I can’t cite any sources for this; I’ve developed this sense from the reactions I’ve read or even gotten myself to what amounts to expert in-talk. There are also the admonitions from writers like Strunk & White about always preferring the Anglo-Saxon.) There’s another assumption that multisyllabic words are inherently harder to read and understand than monosyllabic ones. But the words used in that passage (and in the document as a whole) are mainly monosyllabic and probably Anglo-Saxon, which does nothing to increase their comprehensibility. You might say, “Well, they’re referring to concrete things in the world; if you knew the parts of a ship, you’d need specific names for them, too.” But that’s certainly the case with medical terminology and other sorts of scientific-technical language, which evolved the way they did because of precision first, not as a mode of social exclusion.

On the other hand, it’s comforting to know that words like “mizzen” and “chaff” and “abaft” are being used in real-world professional communications.