No such word in Maine!
INSTEAD of indulging in one of these vacation cruises, why don't we save a lot of money and I'll take you out east on a downeaster? I've a purpose in this - I'd like to acquaint you with some good down-Maine seafaring words, and see if by popular demand we can't liquidate all these pseudo-nautical experts who go around saying ``nor'east.'' There is no such word as nor'east, and never was, and it finds itself in the dictionary as a consequence of lackadaisical permissiveness under the pressures of public ignorance. If you say goffleblup enough times, some dictionarymaker will work it in and say it means tomato soup.
Howard Chapelle, late of the Smithsonian, wrote that the ``downeaster'' was the highest development of the sailing ship. Most of those brave paintings you see of a vessel at sea with all sails set were of downeasters - not clippers. The clipper got a lot of good publicity, but her heyday ran just a little over a decade. When the downeasters took over, they extended sail into the age of steam by a good quarter-century, and made money.
The downeaster was a wooden vessel built on the Maine coast, full rigged or a bark, owned by a Mainer and with a Maine master, and usually a down-Maine crew. The downeaster was magnificently built, with cunning carpentry in the master's quarters, and like as not she was a ``hen frigate'' - a vessel with the wife and family aboard.
The reason I've invited you aboard my downeaster for a leisurely voyage to the Chiny Seas is to let you hear some good maritime language, and there was never a better place. You'll have to move backward just about a hundred years, but that's easy once you get the hang of it.
First, we should box the compass. All right - any good Boy Scout can do that, but not necessarily with the phonetics used in the days of sail, when the ``declination of the needle'' was as important as food and drink. First, north was pronounced no'th - the ``o'' as in snow and the ``th'' as in that. A ship setting sail to leave port always ``filled to the no'th,'' a small superstition often accompanied by heaving a shilling overboard. It didn't pay to take chances.
After filling his sails to the north, a master could then go as he pleased. South was pronounced ``sowth'' - as in Mamma Pig. This was by no means whimsy, but to assure that nobody in the crew ever misheard north and south and did the wrong thing. Northeast became no-theast, and similarly was never confused with nor-west. Likewise, sow-theast was never misunderstood as sow-west. With the wind frisky and a man on the yards taking in sail, what is shouted at him through a megaphone from the quarterdeck should arrive loud and clear. There was no ``nor'east'' because nobody ever said it.
At noon, the master or mate would take a ``southing,'' confirming the noonday sun, and this was a ``sow-thing.'' Opposite would be the ``know-thing.'' The use of ``no'th'' and ``nor,'' when applied to compass spots in the two upper quarters, follows the rule - nor'west by no'th, east no'theast. When the ship's master lined up his tads by the taffrail for their lessons, his recitation of the compass was a musical composition, smooth with the elisions and rich with the right vowel sounds. Someday those youngsters might be in a bind where nor'east could sound like nor'west, and dat ol' debbil sea would wreak his worst.
We've plenty of time - it's a long voyage to Bombay. Take ``offing.'' It's a word from the sea, and one newspaper headline writers love to misuse. ``Strike in the Offing!'' An offing is a point some distance from the shore, but within sight of it. A good offing is one clear of the land, with bold water and room to navigate. It is a term to be used on the deck of the vessel, and has no meaning when it comes ashore. Deep water mariners weren't leery of the open sea - but if they lost their offing with a no'theast wind making up, they worried.
Another word headline writers abuse is ``loom.'' ``Tension Looms in Coal Mines.'' Sometimes they add, ``Looms Up.'' A loom in this sense is nautical, and refers to the way light is refracted until an island seems to rise above the ocean - a mirage. Nobody with nautical background would ever apply loom to tension in a coal mine. The land looms, and you don't need to add ``up.'' I shudder at the chance that someday a headline writer will have something loom in the offing.
Meantime, it's a lost cause. When you rebuke somebody for saying nor'east he just waves the foolish dictionary at you and says, ``See?'' Once I told a bureaucrat there is no such word as finalize. ``Of course there is,'' he said. ``I get it every day in my instructions from Washington.''