Guest Column  

By Rob Rohde-Szudy - Madison, Wisconsin - USA


I'm Not Cornish

Rob is a regular monthly columnist but since the subject matter of this rant is a bit different, he asked that it be posted outside his regular monthly format.

I’ve never been to Cornwall, and even though many of my ancestors are British, none are from the West Country as far as I know. Furthermore, I bet the vast majority of you all are also not Cornish.

Why should anyone care?

Because we are we expected to deprive all maritime terms of two thirds of their perfectly useful syllables. For example, “boatswain” is a perfectly pronounceable word. Understandable, even. “The wain of the boat.” True, most don’t know what a “wain” might be, but at least we can guess if it is pronounced. Yet we’re stuck with “bosun,” which could mean anything at all. I would guess something to do with a cow, from the Latin bos.

In fact, regardless of pronunciation, why don’t we just call these people “Riggers,” since this is what they actually do? After all, we manage to call one who sails a “sailor”.

I guess I should offer a little background here. This all started getting much more annoying after I built a schooner. People don’t bug you with this nonsense when you have a canoe or a sensible dinghy. But the moment you have a boat that looks like it could be miniaturized into a bottle, you are suddenly expected to “splice the mainbrace” and “yo ho ho, me hearties.” Neither of which I’m about to do, since I learned to speak plain Yankee English in Wisconsin.

It’s true that Wisconsin had major schooner ports in the age of sail, but I’m confident that the sailors there didn’t talk in silly fake Cornish (or Irish, or Cockney for that matter) tones just because they indeed spliced mainbraces. I’m likewise confident that a crewman on a schooner out of Racine or Milwaukee didn’t hoist any “s’ls.” We have “sails” here. The full breadth of the cloth deserves the full breadth of the word, don’t you think? And a mast is certainly important enough to avoid being truncated to a mere “m’st.” It hardly seems it could hold up a sail with that weakness in the middle, but maybe it only works with the lighter “s’ls.”

I have to believe that regardless of where you’re from, no word deserves to be slighted by more than one apostrophe. “Fo’c’sle” sounds positively vulgar, but when endowed with all its syllables it is perfectly easily understood by any English speaker as “the forward castle.”

I realize that there’s usually a war on somewhere, but I have yet to hear of a shortage of phonemes. So let’s consider using them a bit more liberally. English already requires fewer than most languages to express a given idea, so there’s really no urgency to hack them away. I expect we’ll still have plenty of phonemes long after we run out of oil.

I suppose some will point out that boatswains and forecastles are hardly common these days, and assert that I’m merely attacking nautical traditions of a bygone time. Not so. Indeed, I’d rather keep the etymologies alive. What if we started saying “s’bd” rather than “starboard?” (Don’t laugh – it could happen!) Would anyone still understand that is comes from Norse for “the side where one steers?” Similarly, a “bowline” can be pronounced as spelled rather than “bolin.” It’s a bow on a line, right? Clarity is more important to understanding and tradition than is a regional corruption of pronunciation.

Also take note that I’m not complaining at all about the conventions that turn a rope into a line when it’s passed aboard, and a map to a chart. These do not impede understanding, as even the greenest landsman could figure them out in an instant. And some of these actually do mean something subtly different. A “chart” is different from “map”, as different features are shown. So a different term is justified for clarity. And many terms must be arcane to be specific, like “gammon iron,” “parrel,” “halyard,” etc. Such terms are needed to speak quickly and unambiguously about rigging. When the wind gusts and puts the rail under, nobody wants to be shouting, “No, the other thingie!”

The trouble is needlessly esoteric language, especially when complicated by a horribly abbreviated accent. You see, I think sailing should be for everybody. (That’s right yacht-club-Bob, everybody.) And this brings us to the hidden agenda of needlessly arcane language: Elitism. It is perpetrated especially by people who have “s’ls” and “m’sts”, and insist that their 18-foot “yacht” has a quarterdeck. These people are trying to keep others out of sailing, even if only subconsciously. While all of us use arcane terms when necessary, these people love them and the exclusivity they represent. Maybe it makes them feel like they’re part of a more privileged class than they were born to.

Exclusivity probably seemed like a fine idea to 18th century noblemen who relied largely on ignorance to keep the masses in their place. But it is completely out of place in a country that calls itself the “land of opportunity”. It is up to middle class sailors to undo the perception of sailing as a snobbish pastime for rich white folks only. Undoing deliberately exclusive language is a beginning.

Don’t count on the would-be lords and ladies of the yacht club set to offer much help, though. I hope they will surprise me, but I fear they will go on using overcomplicated and archaic terms along with ghastly impressions of West Country accents.

But I’m not Cornish, and more importantly, I’m not elitist. And my polytarp saaaaaaiiiiils and I like it that way.

(My apologies to the Cornish. This nonsense isn’t your fault, after all.)

Rob Rohde-Szudy
Madison, WI