Word of the Week – devil

Word of the Week – devil

On the long Fourth of July weekend, boats are everywhere on Monterey Bay; fishing boats to paddleboards, everybody wants to get out on the water. All the fans of Patrick O’Brian’s series featuring Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin appreciate how the special nautical vocabulary created a vivid world of nineteenth century naval adventure.

My sailing friends attribute a number of colorful phrases to those swashbuckling days. The “devil” being a name for the seam that joins the outside plank on the deck of the boat to the top plank of the hull, the hapless sailor who had to hang over the rail to paint or caulk that hard to reach spot was said to be “between the devil and the deep blue sea.” To “pay” was another term in use, meaning to caulk the planks in the deck, so when the sailor reached that last seam at the edge, he still “had the devil to pay” and maybe not enough tar to do the job. Nothing to do with satan.

I was surprised to discover that some experts dispute the nautical origin of those “devil” idioms. Their logic seems to be that the first written evidence of the sayings precedes the mention of “the devil” in a dictionary of nautical terms. Hmm. Those Brits have been sailing a long time. Probably a good deal before the time that most sailors could write. With or without permission from a dictionary, those sailors might have called that seam “the devil,” just like their later generations did.

Not all the nautical terms are ancient. The distress call “mayday” was coined in 1923 by a radio officer at Croyden Airport, who was asked to come up with a word that would be easy to say. “S.O.S.” is not so easy to hear on the telephone. He may have chosen mayday as an Anglicized version of “m’aidez” a French term for “help me.”

Some words from the sea just sound good. “Starboard” has nothing to do with celestial navigation. It comes to us from German, where boats once had a “steering oar” or rudder on the right side, a “steering board.” I like the sound of Emily Dickinson’s verse, “There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away.” It seems likely that she too just liked the word “frigate” for a fast boat and probably wasn’t thinking of the usual connotation of a military ship. In today’s navy it’s one size smaller than a destroyer. Frigate comes to us from the sixteenth century French and like many things, sounds even better in Italian, fregata.