The admiral was upset. Not because a cruise-liner had managed to crash into a rock in calm weather in the well-charted Mediterranean, but at the media’s verbiage about it. Crash into rocks, forsooth, he wrote to a London paper; vessels run aground. Having done so, they do not tilt, they list. And a vessel this big is a ship, not a boat.
Well. To my mind the admiral had lost his bearings. He was nautically correct, maybe, and he could have offered bow and starboard to those who wrote of the front of the ship, as it lay on its right-hand side. But to most of us, run aground suggests a ship gently running onto a sandbank, not gashing its side on a rock, as the Costa Concordia had; a listing ship is usually one afloat, not a wreck; and as for ship/boat, agreed, but even today Britons take the boat train to Dover.
Born in a seafaring nation, English is awash with nautical words (awash is one), though, oddly, many are by origin Dutch; skipper and yacht, for example. Most are technical terms now as dead as the big sailing craft that gave rise to them; who but the writers of naval-historical novels knows what the foretopgallants were? (Some kind of sail, I think, but don’t trust me). But a fair number survive, at times confusing the inexpert: a sailing dinghy’s main sheet or jib sheet are not those sails, as you’d expect, but the ropes that control them.
We still use bow and stern for ships, port and starboard (hence the old myth that posh came from Britons eager for a cool cabin on ships to India: Port Outward, Starboard Home), for’ard and aft. Some people still call a ship not it but she. And some words have gone modern. Radio uses masts. Aircraft have port and starboard wings, galleys for kitchens, and, albeit in new senses, pilots and cockpits. And, though they don’t set sail or cast off, their passengers board or even embark.
Far wider, though, is the use of nautical metaphors. Skippers these days often head sporting teams, anchormen prattle on television, shysters act close to the wind. A politician may hope for plain sailing, but have to take soundings in his party to steer through some little-loved bill. But often, drift has left party and bill in the doldrums — originally, low spirits, later the state of a becalmed ship, and thence an area of the Atlantic where ships got that way. He must take a different tack, or he’ll soon be on the rocks. Or he may clear the decks, nail his colours to the mast, and go down with his flag flying.
Though a man in trouble is in deep water, like a non-swimmer, one specifically in financial trouble is in low water, like a ship. And one nearly bankrupt is on his beam ends, the old description of a ship that foul weather has laid almost on its side. Three sheets in the wind is a moribund metaphor for totally drunk, like a ship with flapping ropes and sails.
Our admiral wouldn’t want to torpedo these usages. But many sailors are taken aback — as a ship is when the wind meets the wrong side of the sails — by one common metaphor: leeway.
To you and me, a man with little leeway is one with little space to manoeuvre. To a sailor, leeway is a ship’s down-wind movement, and if he’s close to land and being blown closer, the less of it the better. To him, the space between ship and shore is lee room.
But enough, or I’ll get a broadside from some sub (no, not the underwater sort) and have to heave to anyway.