August 3, 2014

Nautical words to savor

I WAS LOOKING THROUGH my favorite nautical encyclopedia the other day when I came across the word “thurrock.”  I can’t remember ever reading about thurrocks, even in historical novels, but apparently it was the old word for a ship’s bottom, and derived from the Anglo-Saxon word thurruc,  a ship’s hold.

It reminded me of my most favorite sailing word of all, which is futtock. I love it.  It has a fascinating ring about it. As I mentioned in a column a couple of years back, futtock is a word to savor. I always think it sounds like something you shout when you accidentally hit your thumb with a hammer, or drop your sunglasses overboard.

But no, futtock is a corruption of foot-hook.  In wooden ships, futtocks are the curved parts of transverse frames extending from the floor-timbers at the turn of the bilge to meet the top-timbers.

Most of us will know the word from maritime historical novels, such as Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series, where neophyte sailors are always getting into trouble at the futtock shrouds on large sailing ships.

According to Cornell's old Encyclopedia of Nautical Knowledge, the futtock shrouds were usually iron rods, the harbingers of the rod rigging found on today's ocean racers.  These rods were downward extensions of the topmast shrouds. They helped stiffen the top in addition to taking the stress of the topmast rigging.  They were adorned with ratlines so that sailors could swarm up and over them, but the interesting thing about the futtock shrouds was that they slanted outward from the mast, and thus presented what the encyclopedia calls "an interesting obstacle to the beginner as he scrambled aloft."  Interesting indeed.  You had to be able to climb upside down, almost like a fly landing on a ceiling. How they kept their feet on the ratlines I'll never know.

Most ships also had an opening next to the mast, through which you could crawl instead, but no real sailor would be seen dead using what was called the lubbers' hole.  So they all went a-futtocking, and sadly some of them fell off.  Perhaps it's for the best that futtock shrouds have almost disappeared, but do let's try to preserve the word itself.  Say it after me. Futtock, futtock, futtock. There, doesn't that feel good?

Today's Thought
Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.
— Rudyard Kipling, Speech

"What have you done to my article on organic milk? I wrote 1,000 words and you've only used 300."
"Sorry. We had to condense it."

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