Lessons in Language: All above board and ship shape!

I once wrote a feisty rant about the phrase changing tack (meaning to change one’s approach) and how some folks mistakenly write that as change tact, despite the term’s surely obvious nautical origins. It shouldn’t make me foam at the mouth, and yet it does. Okay. So I’m not necessarily a reasonable human being.

The thing is, knowing the origins of a word can tell us a lot about how to spell the word as well as its meaning. (I go on and on and on about it, I know, I know. The day I stop being passionate about etymology will probably be three weeks after I’m dead.)

Some etymology of words and phrases is steeped in mystery. I wrote about the phrase toe the line a while back to, and recently found that some people claim the phrase’s origins, like changing tack, reside in the language of seafarers. My investigations into nautical-inspired English suggest the term comes from sailors having to line up with a seam in the deck planks. Some sailors were made to stand at the line at attention as punishment, hence the meaning of toe the line meaning to accept authority and obey the rules. Having said that, I’m not yet certain that anyone has been able to definitively lay claim on the phrase.

However, the sea and sailors have clearly given English many words and phrases that are not used in an obviously oceanic sense any more. Take, for shining example, the following words and expressions.

Above board: if everything is above board, it means that everything can be clearly seen and nothing hidden or underhanded is going on. It refers to having all one’s cargo and crew visible on deck. As opposed to hiding half your crew belowdecks with their cutlasses so they can sneak up on you and board your ship once you get into jumping distance. A tactic for blackguards the Dread Pirate Roberts.

To strike; to stop work: apparently, if a lunatic captain tried to put out to sea when it was dangerous, some brave sailors might lower, or strike, the ship’s sails in order to prevent mass suicide.

Three sheets to the wind: sheets, in this case, refers to the ropes which hold sails in place, rather than the sails themselves. If at least three of these ropes fail to be fastened, the sails are all over the place and the ship will, likewise, stagger all over the sea like a drunken bogan on race day.

By and large; generally speaking: by and large actually refer to types of wind. Who knew? Well, sailors, obviously. A large wind is one that is blowing in same direction you’re trying to sail. If the wind is by, it’s… not. Okay, so I’m not a sailor, but the upshot is that a wind can be in your direction, or it can be less favourable, but with the clever use of the right kinds of sails, a ship can travel both by and large. I’m sure I had a point at the start there. Oh look. A bird.

Skylarking: that’s a good word, isn’t it? Full of verve and joie de vivre.  Mucking about like a lark in the sky, and hopefully not crashing to earth, because we know it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. Or falls off the rigging, because the term originates in from wantonly playing about in the rigging. I like the use of ‘wantonly’ there. It has pep.

So on that note, I’m off to skylark around with the new novel, and if I fail to get traction with it, I’ll nip down to the pub, end up three sheets to the wind, go on strike from the damned thing and, by and large, wish I’d taken up knitting instead. Don’t worry. It’s all above board.

Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, iPhone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.