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Spec Tech: Salty Talk – the Use and Misuse of Nautical Language

November 11, 2010

A significant subset of fantasy and science fiction deals with ships and the sea. When writing about sailors and ships, writers of speculative fiction often manage to get it wrong.   This does not does not make them usual. Many writers, of all genres, screw things up when writing about ships. I recently read a biography of a ship’s captain in which the author referred to a square-rigged ship as a schooner, referred to yards (the spars that spread the sails) as poles and generally demonstrated that he had not a clue about the ship he was describing, all within the first two pages of the book.   As a reader I immediately wondered whether the biographer had any better understanding of the captain that he was writing about than he did of the ship.

But, let’s start with a fair question – why bother worrying about language when writing about ships? Most readers probably won’t know or care if you get the language right anyway.   Then again, many might.  There does seem to be a moderately large overlap between both readers and writers of speculative fiction and nautical fiction. You run the risk of alienating a group of readers who just might care very much whether you know the bow from the stern, or your bunts from your clews. On a deeper level it also matters because, as a writer, if you do not understand the world in which your characters live, you will have a much harder time bringing them to life.  Ships and sailors are different from the rest of the world which is why so many find them interesting.

So, without further ado, a brief and highly superficial guide to writing about ships and the sea.

Learn a bit of the lingo – For reasons of history and practice, ships have a language all their own. This is not solely intended to confuse land-lubbers, though it often has that effect. When writing about ships, take time to learn a bit of the language.   The front of a ship is the bow, the back the stern and so on. There are countless sources for learning about nautical language on the internet. (See the links below.)  It is worth your time to know about the rig the of vessel you are writing about, (is it a sloop,a ketch a schooner, a brig, a barque and so on) but probably not necessarily to understand the finer points of rigging the upper t’gallant clewlines, if it has any.  A little bit of knowledge can go a long way.

Beware of the vague – One of the first signs of a clueless writer is vagueness. Lazy writers always have sailors “pulling on ropes” as the ship gets underway. There are two problems here. First, rope is a raw material. Once it is brought aboard, cut to length and given a function, it is also given a name and is no longer “rope.” (If you don’t know what to call a piece of “rope” call it a “line”.) The second problem is that “pulling on ropes” says nothing about what the sailor is doing. If he or she is raising a sail, the sailor is hauling on a halyard. Securing or casting off the ship involves mooring lines also referred to as hawsers. Sails are controlled by hauling on the sheets or braces, if the ship is square-rigged.  And so on.

Vagueness indicates that a writer doesn’t understand the scene being described.  Try to be specific.   Don’t write, as one very successful fantasy writer has,  that the “rigging was all tangled.”   That sounds like a young girl’s hair, not a ship.  Sails blow out.  Halyards part.  Sheets foul. Gaskets carry away.   Rigging tangled? Not so much. Far better to be wrong than vague.  Even if your readers don’t know a halyard from a halberd, the specific language adds a feel of authenticity.  It communicates to your readers that you know what you are talking about, which is a good thing.

Keep an eye to weather and mind the wind – If the ship you are writing about has sails, it is good to understand a tiny bit about sailing.   Not much is required, but knowing a beam reach from a beat is very handy. It also avoids the common mistake of having the captain standing on the bow with the wind in his face as the ship is sailing on a broad reach, which is to say that the wind should be on his back.

Another problem is that too many writers treat ships as is they were mere means of conveyance. Their characters get on at one port and off at another. Storms, wind, waves, calms and all the other perils of the sea are often simply ignored. The sea and sky can be just as vivid characters as any of those aboard the ship. The forces of nature cannot be ignored in the real world and should not be ignored in fiction.

Please don’t talk like a pirate – Disney and others have left the impression that pirates constantly say “aargh” and “shiver me timbers” and look somewhat like Johnny Depp.   Please don’t “talk like a pirate” or at least not a Disney pirate. Those who really want to talk  like a pirate today should learn a little Somali.

In the 18th century many writers portrayed sailors as exotics, who often wore colorful attire and spoke in colorful language.  This at least partially accurate portrayal has been mangled over the centuries. If you do want to use colorful nautical language, do it well. But be careful. If someone suggests that you “kiss the gunners daughter,” they are saying that you should be flogged, whereas an offer to “suck the monkey” may be only be a reference to having a drink.  Or not. (I’d still be careful with that one.)

Use salty language as spice – Using nautical terms and language adds authenticity and vividness to writing as long as it is used in moderation. Too much salt ruins a stew and likewise it can spoil otherwise good fiction. Just as detailed faux-scientific jargon gets tiring in some science fiction, too much technical sailing language will lose even the most knowledgeable nautical reader.

Have fun and ignore the wonks – Ignoring nautical terminology in fiction involving ships and the sea is sure to annoy many readers. On one level it shows a disrespect for knowledgeable readers. That being said, it unlikely that even a writer who does the research will ever please the true nautical wonk. Just like the annoying twerp at the sci-fi conference who complains about the details of a fictional phase flux capacitor or a tachyonic jello maker, real rigging wonks will always find something to complain about.  In The Red Wolf Conspiracy by Robert V. S. Redick, for example, an officer grabs hold of a buntline and hauls himself up on the ship’s rail. As a rigging wonk myself, I am pleased that Redick knows what a buntline is, or even that they exist. Also as a rigging wonk, I understand why, of all the rigging onboard ship, a buntline is one line that a ship’s officer would not use to pull himself up on the rail.   (The explanation of why this is is involved, and probably not very interesting to most.)

So, ignore the wonks. Have fun with the language. That will communicate more to your readers than whether or not you get the rigging of the lower topsail studding sail exactly right.

A few resources:

Nautical Dictionary

Nautical Terms and Phrases – Their Meaning and Origin

William Falconer’s Dictionary of the Marine

Sailing Ship Rigs

Sail Ship Rigging

Points of sail

Sailor Talk – “Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter” and “Sucking the Monkey”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 12, 2010 11:43 am

    Hear-hear! Sailing and ships from the era of sail is definitely one of those areas where you will hear from the real aficionados. Firearms is another. The most comments the original Star Trek ever got in its first run was when Sulu fired a replica of an old revolver seven times in a row without reloading.

    Of course, writing in my own 29th century universe means that I can invent my own terms — and having just celebrated the 20th anniversary of that 29th century universe means that I have had a chance to revise and develop better how all those terms interact, including differences between civilian and military versions of the same tech, or differences between the British and Americans. (grin)

    Dr. Phil

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