A seaworthy historian traces the origins of colorful maritime expressions that have dropped anchor in our everday speech.
When A Loose Cannon Flogs A Dead Horse There's The Devil To Pay by Olivia Isil 115 pages, International Marine, $9.95
If you belong to the landlubber group, always at sea when it comes to the meaning of maritime expressions, help is on the way.
You'll find at least 250 colorful explanations in Olivia Isil's When A Loose Cannon Flogs A Dead Horse There's The Devil To Pay.
You will have no trouble recognizing the common English words and phrases of seagoing men today. But it has remained for author Isil to run them up the flagpole and salute them with her own salty elucidations.
Phrases such as "scraped from the bottom of the barrel," "they don't know the ropes," "keep a weather eye open," "barge in," or "bitter end," as well as such words as bootleg, fairway, or hijack.
Library research alone did not set the sails or raise the anchor on Isil's work. In her youth she played on the rotting deck of the U.S. Niagara, listening to old sailors' yarns. Today, she sails as a crew member aboard an authentic working replica of a late-1500s ship, the Elizabeth II, in North Carolina and serves as chief historic interpreter of the organization that runs the ship.
"My dad, a diver-dock worker during World War II, and my three sailor uncles . . . influenced my interest in the colorful language of the sea," Isil writes in the preface. "Much to my father's and uncles' delight, and my mother's extreme horror, I was the perfect mimic and repeated everything (and I do mean everything!) that came within earshot. At the age of six, I was packed off to the Sisters of Saint Joseph and the refined environment of a convent school-and probably just in the nick of time."
The author's memory has not failed her, nor has her fascination for the nautical sayings that are anchored in our contemporary English speech.
Quoting from the intro to her work, "With bearings set, and navigation charts in hand, [let us] embark on a short sail . . . through the sea of words that await.... Conditions may sometimes be foggy but, by and large, smooth sailing is in the offing."
Let's sail first into the question of why we sometimes carry a difficult struggle to its "bitter end." The answer is simple, once you understand that the anchor rope on old sailing vessels was attached to a stout oak post called a bitt. When the rope was played out, the end nearest the bitt was called the bitter end. Why, of course.
Our word bootleg comes from the practice of sailors smuggling goods ashore in the upper part of their seaboots. And all the time we had this crazy idea that the word originated from our game of football, wherein the quarterback fakes a handoff to a teammate but keeps …