I have trouble with trilogies. And the mere thought of a tetralogy, pentalogy, or sextology makes me start to feel a bit logy. My personal library is littered with the spines of multi-volume fictions I gave up on after only one book, or sometimes even sooner. Gormenghast, Tinieblas, U.S.A., Narnia, Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom books, Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levant trilogies, Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, Studs Lonigan, the Lanny Budd books of Upton Sinclair – I’ve abandoned them all.
Duologies (sometimes called “dilogies”) I can handle. The Manor and The Estate, a two-novel saga of Polish Jews by Isaac Bashevis Singer – no problem. Edith Wharton’s Hudson River Bracketed and its sequel The Gods Arrive constitute one of my favorite Wharton fictions, despite the fact that most experts consider these two books among her weakest. Kidnapped and its lesser-known sequel Catriona (pronounced “Katreena”) together constitute one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s best romances.
I especially like the unofficial duology. This is a species of literature that hasn’t been written about much but exists nonetheless. If Lily Bart’s suicide at the end of The House of Mirth left you feeling bereft, try cheering yourself up by reading Wharton’s later novel The Glimpses of the Moon, which has a happier ending and which, with a bit of imagination, can be read as a sequel of sorts to The House of Mirth. All you have to do is imagine that George Selden arrived at Lily Bart’s apartment in time to prevent her from killing herself and that these two friends finally agreed to marry as they should have long ago. Change George’s name to Nick Lansing, Lily’s name to Susy Branch (easy to do, since the two names are so similar), ignore a fifteen-year shift in time, and you can watch as Lily/Susy (somewhat unconvincingly, I’ll admit) finds the happiness that eluded her in The House of Mirth.
Likewise, if you were depressed by Jack London’s Martin Eden, which ends with the death of a successful writer who throws himself into the water and drowns, solace yourself by reading The Sea Wolf, which begins when a drowning writer is plucked out of the San Francisco Bay by a cruel sea captain who enlists him in all sorts of harrowing adventures that eventually lead to love and happiness, two things Martin Eden could never find.
And if you couldn’t get enough of the spunky heroine of Betty Smith’s classic coming-of-age novel A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, pick up Smith’s Joy In The Morning, which switches the heroine’s name from Francie to Annie (a barely noticeable alteration) but otherwise continues the story of the first novel without missing a beat.
For me, two volumes seems to be the maximum number of books through which a reader should be required to follow the exploits of the same set of characters. Curiously, even when I greatly enjoy Books One and Two of a series, I rarely read any further. Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth is one of my all-time favorite books. It is part of a trilogy which also comprises the novels Herself Surprised and To Be a Pilgrim. I have read and greatly enjoyed Herself Surprised, but To Be a Pilgrim has sat on my shelf unread for more than a decade.
Frank Norris’ The Octopus is one of my favorite novels. It is Book One in his “Epic of the Wheat” trilogy. I tried reading Book Two, The Pit, but never managed to finish it. Norris himself never managed to finish Book Three. He died while The Wolf was still just a glint in its creator’s eye.
Likewise, After the War and An Affair of Honor, by the late, great, and criminally underrated novelist Richard Marius rank among my favorite reads of the last fifteen years. But they are part of a four-novel cycle, and though the other two novels (Bound For The Promised Land and The Coming of Rain) have been in my possession for years, I have never ventured into them. Whenever I see them sitting on my bookshelf, I think of the young couple who sat at a table next to my wife and me at a dinner theater performance of Harvey years ago. When the curtain rose at the end of the first act, the couple applauded, commented to each other on what an exceptional play it was, paid their bill, and left the theater arm-in-arm, blissfully unaware that there was another act to follow. I am not quite so oblivious. I am aware of the existence of the unread books in Marius’ series, but I am blissfully content to leave them unread for now. I’m not sure why this is but I feel fairly certain it has nothing to do with laziness or some deep-down lack of satisfaction with the two volumes I have already read. In fact, I enjoyed After The War so much that I reread it recently. It lived up to my memory of it as a wonderful saga of life in the small fictional town of Bourbonville, Tennessee during and after the First World War, but it still didn’t inspire me to tackle the two remaining novels in the Bourbonville cycle.
And don’t even get me started with the French. Although I read and loved Germinal, I have no strong desire to read all twenty books in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle. The same can be said of Cousin Bette and Balzac’s 90-volume La Comedie Humaine.
While I am more than willing to enter the labyrinth of a multi-volume work of fiction, I almost never persevere long enough to reach that piece of cheese at the end of the long and winding corridor. But, judging from the number of books listed on Amazon.com with the word “trilogy” in their titles (5174), there must be plenty of people out there who are addicted to that labyrinth cheese. I saw this firsthand when I worked as a clerk in a Tower Books store back in the 1990s. Customers were constantly hectoring us clerks for information about the release date of the next installment of (you pick it) Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and so on. As you might expect, most multi-volume novels fall into the fantasy genre, and most of these appear to be aimed at young readers. Hollywood’s recent embrace of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, the Harry Potter books, the Lord of the Rings books, and The Chronicles of Narnia is only likely to encourage publishers to bring out more multi-volume fantasy sequences. In fact, it is already happening. Scroll through Amazon.com’s five thousand-plus trilogies and you will notice a preponderance of titles containing such words as “unicorn,” “dungeons,” “elves,” “wizard,” and “sorcerer.” Evelyn Waugh was ahead of the curve when he titled his lone trilogy Sword of Honor. Amazon now lists numerous other “sword” trilogies, including The Sword of the Spirits Trilogy, The Swords Trilogy, The Two Swords Trilogy, and The Swords of Shannara. One can easily imagine the chuckle Waugh’s shade lets loose every time some misguided American teenager purchases a copy of Sword of Honor online thinking that he’ll soon be enjoying a multi-volume dungeons-and-dragons epic.
And speaking of dragons, they are far and away the champions of the trilogy word-title competition. Consider just this partial roll-call of Amazon trilogy titles:

The Dragonlance Series
The Pit Dragon Trilogy
The Dragonvarld Trilogy
The Dragonmaster Trilogy
The Dragon Trilogy
The Dragon King Trilogy
The Dragon Stone Trilogy
The Dragon’s Eye Trilogy
The Dragon’s Wake Trilogy
The Dragon’s Fire Trilogy
The Dragonriders of Pern Trilogy

Most contemporary fantasy trilogies have titles so long that I find myself exhausted after reading only the book cover. If the authors of these tomes are so windy that even their title pages have very little visible white space, it is no wonder they can’t tell a story in under three volumes. Consider for instance these tongue twisters:

The Amulet of Samarkand (The Bartimaeus Trilogy Book One)
The Crystal Shard (Forgotten Realms: The Icewind Dale Trilogy Book One)
The Thousand Orcs (Forgotten Realms: The Hunter’s Blades Trilogy Book One)
Wizard’s Curse: Trinistyr Trilogy, Volume One (Dragonlance: The New Adventure)
The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty: The First of the Classic Erotic Trilogy of Sleeping Beauty (Erotic Adventures of Sleeping Beauty Book One)

The last mentioned book was written by Anne Rice (under the pseudonym A.N. Roquelaure), who was definitely onto something big when she decided to write a series of books combining two popular genres (erotica and fantasy) in one tale. Two of today’s biggest selling novel sequences are Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, which mixes Harlequin-style romance with fantasy, and the Left Behind series, by Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, which mixes fantasy with Christianity (a bit of a redundancy, I know). If someone could manage to combine Jesus and dragons into the same fantasy stew and spread the tale out over three volumes, god only knows how many millions of copies they might sell. I can see the title-page now: The Calling of the Twelve (Jesus, Dragon Lord of Nazareth, Book Two). Frankly, though, whenever I hear a fan of these cross-genre epics speaking enthusiastically about them, I feel like a bit of an outlander myself. I feel left behind.
There seems to be some debate over what to call these multi-volume novels, especially after they surpass the trilogy stage (Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time epic, for instance, runs to at least eleven books as of this writing; pretty soon he’s likely to have an eighteen-wheeler on his hands). “Tetralogy” is the technical term for a series of four related dramatic or literary works. But unlike trilogy, the word tetralogy rarely appears on a book cover. Amazon.com lists only 60 books with the word tetralogy in their titles. These range from the standard fantasy fare (Seeds of Betrayal: Book Two of the Winds of the Forelands Tetralogy) to more serious works of fiction (The Decay of the Angel, Book Four of Yukio Mishima’s The Sea of Fertility Tetralogy), to works outside the novel genre (The East Village Tetralogy, a collection of four plays by New York City writer Arthur Nersesian). Amazon also lists two books with the word “tetrology” in their titles. This variant is listed as an alternate spelling for tetralogy by the online Wikipedia encyclopedia, but I can’t find it in any dictionary I own. Perhaps because few people (myself included, until just now) know that the prefix tetra comes from the Greek word tettares, meaning four, publishers tend to avoid the term. The Latin prefix “quadr” and its variants are more familiar to English-speaking people these days than the Greek prefix is. Which may explain why Paul Scott’s four-volume series is always referred to as The Raj Quartet rather than the Raj Tetralogy. The same explanation probably applies to Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, as well. Calling a four-volume set of novels a quartet is not wrong, but it is less accurate than calling it a tetralogy. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language emphasizes that quartet is primarily a musical term, although it can also be used to describe any group of four. A less conventional deviation from the word tetralogy is employed by the 20th Century Fox Corporation in the title of the boxed set of dvds that comprises the four installments of the Alien film franchise. Fox calls this package The Alien Quadrilogy. Quadrilogy is a term Fox appears to have coined, for I can find it nowhere else in print. Perhaps Fox has copyrighted the word, the way NBA head coach Pat Riley once tried to copyright the word threepeat (come to think of it, threepeat might be a good label for a really repetitive trilogy).
And once a novel series moves past its fourth book, the nomenclature becomes even trickier. According to the Wikipedia, a five-volume dramatic work is called a pentalogy. A six volume series, says Wikipedia, is known as either a sextology or, less frequently, a hexology (both appear to be extremely infrequent, in my experience). None of these three Wikipedia-defined terms appear in either the American Heritage Dictionary or in J.A. Cuddon’s Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Both the Penguin and American Heritage dictionaries have entries for “Pentateuch,” which means “containing five books.” The term comes from the Greek words for five (penta) and book (teuchos). But both dictionaries also assert that this term is now used only to refer to the first five books of the Bible. Likewise, the word “Octateuch,” meaning “containing eight books,” is now used exclusively to refer to the first eight books of the Bible. Although both Jewish and Christian tradition view the first five books of the Bible as a single unit, it is not exactly clear why this should be. Some scholars have argued that the books are linked by the promise of land for the chosen people, but as the editors of the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB) point out, that promise isn’t fulfilled until the book of Joshua, the sixth book of the Bible. “In which case,” says the NOAB, “the Hexateuch (‘six books’: the Pentateuch plus Joshua) rather than the Pentateuch should be seen as the decisive unit.” Pentateuch, Hexateuch, and Octateuch are all useful terms, but only when you are referring to the Bible. To label a contemporary work of five, six, or even eight volumes, we will have to look elsewhere for guidance. (By the way, I don’t know if there is any relation between the Greek word teuchos [book] and the similar-looking Yiddish word toches [ass, as in kish mir in toches, or kiss my ass] but if so, then perhaps a really awful five-book series ought to be labeled a pentatoches.)
Barbara Ann Kipfer’s otherwise excellent tome The Order of Things: How Everything in the World is Organized into Hierarchies, Structures, and Pecking Orders, offers no guidance for those seeking to label multi-volume sagas. In a chapter devoted to the arts, Kipfer lists the various categories of bestsellers, she explains how International Standard Book Numbers (ISBN) are assigned, she lists the seven different sizes of octavo formats and twenty-one different quarto formats, but she makes no mention whatsoever of what ought to follow “duology,” “trilogy,” and “tetralogy” in the hierarchy of multi-volume literature. And if there were such a list, duology might not even be on it. Once again, the Wikipedia is the only source I can find for the existence of the word.
These days multi-volume epics longer than trilogies usually have one of the se- words applied to them: “serial,” “series,” “sequence,” or “set.” On occasion they might also be referred to as “cycles.” But these five sibilant terms are not entirely interchangeable. A “serial” is a continuous drama or story broken up into installments, each of which usually takes up the story right where the other one left off. The volumes in a serial often conclude with so-called cliff-hanger endings, which are resolved in the next installment. The word “series” is generally used to refer to a group of books linked by the presence of one or more regular characters. These groups of books, such as Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford novels and Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels, generally introduce an entirely new plot and cast of secondary characters with each volume. “Sequence” is a term that, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, can be applied to multi-volume works that are either “related” (like Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire Novels, which are linked primarily by geography) or “continuous” (like The Harry Potter novels, which are installments of a single, very long story). The word “set” is a more general term that can be used to describe books written by the same author (a complete set of Jane Austen novels, for instance) or published in uniform editions (Penguin “Portables,” for instance, or The Modern Library’s “20th Century Rediscoveries”). The books published by The Library of America constitute a set. They are written by different American authors, but they are published in uniform volumes expensively clad in woven rayon and adorned with such extras as hard-shell slipcovers and colored-ribbon bookmarks. The word “cycle” is a more specific term. According to J.A. Cuddon, the works in a cycle — be they stories, poems or plays — are linked by a central theme and not necessarily by continuing characters or interlocking storylines. Frank Norris’ unfinished “Epic of the Wheat” was conceived as a cycle, in which the individual volumes would each explore different aspects of capitalism and consumerism without recycling any of the same characters, plotlines, or even settings. And even the aforementioned Pentateuch might best be described as a cycle. The first five books of the Bible were not written by a single author and are not linked by a central human character (Moses doesn’t appear in Genesis). “Nor,” as the NOAB points out, “is there complete coherence of plot among them.” Rather the books are united by their emphasis on law and instruction. “Law is a predominant genre of the Pentateuch, which contains not only the Ten Commandments,” says the NOAB, but also instruction in the laws of circumcision, the laws covering the inheritance of land by women, and other legal matters. As a sequence of legal writings, the Pentateuch may not be as thrilling as, say, Scott Turow’s Kindle County sequence, but they have had a much longer shelf life.
But I don’t care whether you call them “serials,” “sets,” “series,” “sequences,” or even “cycles” – I’ve almost never been able to read my way through one of them, and that includes both the Pentatuech and the Kindle County sequence. But hope springs eternal. For some reason I keep buying novels that are the first book of a long series. Sometimes, to test the waters, I’ll try a stand-alone novel by the author of a famous series before attempting his multi-volume work. Thus I read O, How the Wheel Becomes It!, a short novel by Anthony Powell, hoping it might propel me into his twelve-volume A Dance To The Music of Time. It didn’t. I read R.M. Koster’s Glass Mountain hoping it might propel me into his Tinieblas Trilogy. It didn’t. Both books were good, but, upon finishing them, I didn’t immediately say to myself, “Gee, I’d love to spend the next two to twelve months reading another, extremely long, story by the same author.”
If this method of testing the literary waters doesn’t appeal to you, don’t despair. There is another way to take the measure of a multi-volume saga that is much easier than reading a stand-alone novel by the same author. Simply go to the Amazon.com website and check out the saga’s “Statistically Improbable Phrases” (SIPs). For instance, the SIPs listed under the various volumes in R.A. Salvatore’s Icewind Dale Trilogy will give you a pretty good idea of what to expect from the series. They include: “mottled wizard,” “whirring scimitars,” “silvery halls,” “onyx statuette,” “black dwarf,” “huge barbarian,” “mighty warhammer,” “ruby pendent,” “magical mask,” and “goblin tribes.” You can pretty much assemble your own prefab fantasy tale from those relatively clichéd terms.
And here are some of the SIPs that can be found in Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty Trilogy: “bronze phallus,” “parted her legs,” “nipple clamps,” “bound slaves,” “pubic lips,” and “sore buttocks.” Any confusion about whether this is a bedtime tale for children?
The SIPs for Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy include: “rope from the saddlehorn,” “dont mean nothing,” “aint goin nowheres,” “you wasnt,” “aint leavin,” “aint nothin,” “dont reckon,” “unhitched the rope,” “adjusted his hat,” “tipped the ash,” “she wasnt,” and “didnt care.” Clearly this isn’t a tale about a young academic struggling to make tenure at an Ivy League college.
Curiously, my own experience has been that the fewer oddball phrases Amazon can find in a book, the more I am likely to enjoy it. For instance, the only SIP listed for Joyce Cary’s novel The Horse’s Mouth is “nice little wife,” which I guess is an indication of just how rare a positive reference to marriage is in twentieth-century fiction (and no doubt Cary’s narrator was using it facetiously).
At any rate, given my spotty record with multi-volume sagas, it seems almost perverse that I should have attempted, a while back, to tackle Patrick O’Brian’s much heralded twenty-volume Aubrey-Maturin series of nautical adventures. (Actually, it is a 20.25-volume series of nautical adventures, because a fragment of a twenty-first novel, which O’Brian left unfinished when he died, has now been published.) True to form, I first attempted to read one of O’Brian’s early, non-series novels. I chose the shortest book by O’Brian I could find, a 100-page novella called Caesar: The Life Story of a Panda-Leopard. Although the book struck me as being somewhat juvenile, this shortcoming was perfectly forgivable, seeing as how the book was written when the author was only twelve years old.
Next I moved on to Master and Commander. I enjoyed it. It was gripping in its own leisurely-paced fashion. It was beautifully written. But dammit, I wasn’t immediately possessed by a desire to read the remaining 19.25 books in the series. I was, however, possessed by a desire to learn more of the lovely nautical nomenclature employed by O’Brian in his novels. My purpose was twofold. I figured if I felt more at home with the lingo, my enjoyment of future books in the series would be enhanced. But also, I just happen to like the sound of terms like “trunnion,” “black strake,” “polacre rig,” “lashing-eye,” “kedge anchor,” “planksheer,” “dumb chalder,” “thole pin,” “dog-watch,” and the like. So I bought a copy of the third edition of A Sea of Words, a compendium of thousands of the unfamiliar terms and phrases to be found in the books of the Aubrey-Maturin series. Compiled by O’Brian biographer Dean King, with John B. Hattendorf and J. Worth Estes, the book lists nautical terms, surgical terms (Stephen Maturin is a surgeon), foreign phrases, literary references, military terms, botany terms, and more. Every word lover, even if he doesn’t know a Spanish xebec from a Mediterranean falucca, or a paquet barc from a Lisbon bean-cod, will find this compendium of odd, and often euphonious words and phrases riveting. I was especially intrigued by the number of nautical terms that sounded vaguely (or not so vaguely) sexual: “bumboat,” “snatch block,” “shag,” “sweetening cock,” “scuttle-butt,” “jackstaff,” “lubber’s hole,” “royal pole,” “twice-laid,” and, of course, “cunt-splice” (“A type of splice formed when two ropes are overlapped and joined in such a way as to form an eye.”). Also fun were the polite euphemisms for various unmentionable objects and actions: “necessary bottle” for urinal, “seat of ease” for toilet, “Egyptian pox” for syphilis, “intromittent organ” for penis, “knocking shop” for brothel, and “pump ship” for the act of urinating (as in “I’ve got to go pump ship.”). And then there were terms that sounded like unmentionables but turned out to be quite innocuous: “shittam wood” (a product of the shittah tree) and “urinator” (one who dives under water).
I planned to tackle the next volume in the Aubrey-Maturin series just as soon as I finished reading A Sea of Words, but by the time I finished it I realized that one lexicon was not enough to satisfy my thirst for nautical terms. I did some research and discovered that O’Brian’s own primary source for nautical terms was Admiral W.H. Smyth’s The Sailor’s Lexicon, first issued in 1867. A facsimile of that 1867 edition is still in print. It is a far more interesting book than A Sea of Words. For that matter, it is also a far more interesting book than Master and Commander. The majority of its most fascinating terms appear nowhere in A Sea of Words, so I have to assume that O’Brian never employed them in his nautical series. More’s the pity. I don’t know how he could possibly have passed up such colorful terms as “able-whackets” (“A popular sea-game with cards, wherein the loser is beaten over the palms of the hands with a handkerchief tightly twisted like a rope. Very popular with horny fisted salts.”), “antiscii” (“The people who dwell in opposite hemispheres of the earth, and whose shadows at noon fall in contrary directions.”), “arenation” (“The burying of [scurvy] patients up to the neck in holes in a sandy beach, for cure…”), “beating the booby” (warming one’s hands), “bleeding the monkey” (stealing from the grog bucket), “blowing the grampus” (“Throwing water over a sleeper on watch.”) “combing the cat” (untangling the cat-o’-nine-tails), “dredgy” (“The ghost of a drowned person.”) “drowning the miller” (“Adding too much water to wine or spirits…”), “ear-wigging” (“Feeding an officers ear with scandal against an absent individual.”), “flam-few” (“The brilliant reflection of the moon on the water.”) “fluffit” (“The movement of fishes’ fins.), “glib-gabbet” (“Smooth and ready speech.”), “haul my wind” (which sounds like a maritime version of “kish mir in toches,” but is actually a rather mundane nautical expression), “lumiere cendree” (the ashy light that illuminates the shaded part of the moon), “midshipman’s nuts” (“Broken pieces of biscuit as dessert.”), “spueing the oakum” (“When the ship’s labouring forces the caulking out of her seams.”), “suck the monkey” (another term for robbing the grog can, a serious offense among sailors), and “tap the admiral” (“Opprobriously applied to those who would ‘drink anything;’ from the tale of the drunkard who stole spirits from the cask in which a dead admiral was being conveyed to England.”).
I don’t know about O’Brian, but if I were to write a 20.25-volume series of nautical adventures, I would certainly find a way to work in some of the above phrases from The Sailor’s Lexicon. And here are a few more I’d be hard pressed to leave out:

Automatic Blow-Off Apparatus
Butt-Slinging a Bow Sprit
Coguing the Nose

It is possible, I suppose, that all of these terms appear somewhere in O’Brien’s massive oeuvre. A Sea of Words doesn’t claim to be all-inclusive. Dean King notes that his research turned up 8,000 words in the Aubrey-Maturin series “that could use defining for modern readers.” King doesn’t disclose just how many entries are contained in A Sea of Words, but there are about twelve entries on a typical page. Multiply that by the roughly 400 pages of definitions and you get an estimate of 4,800 entries. Admiral Smyth’s Lexicon, on the other hand, contains an impressive 15,000 entries, give or take a few dozen. He gives names to things you never knew had (or needed) names.
One of the book’s oddities is the number of in-between terms it contains, words that offer you a third option where you never knew that one existed. Have you ever wondered what the term is for a body of water larger than a pond but smaller than a lake? According to Smyth it’s a “dimsel.” Likewise, “meganese” is the term for a body of land bigger than an island but not large enough to be considered a continent. The term for a male who is older than a boy but not yet a man is “gilpy.” And the book contains numerous terms to describe the state of mind that is midway between sober and drunk: “foggy” (“Not quite sober.”), “fuddied” (“Not quite drunk, but unfit for duty.”), “mooney” (“Not quite intoxicated, but unfitted for duty.”), “muggy” (“Half intoxicated.”), “muzzy” (“Half-drunk.”), and “sheet in the wind” (“Half intoxicated; as the sail trembles and is unsteady, so is a drunken man.”). What exactly the difference is between “half sober” and “half drunk,” Smyth never explains. But the fact that so many terms exist to describe this particular mental condition suggests that it wasn’t at all rare among seagoing men.
“Flurry” is another of Smyth’s in-between words. A “gallied” whale is one who has become alarmed by the approach of a whale-boat. A “crang” (sometimes spelled “krang”) is a whale carcass after the blubber has been stripped off. Somewhere between those two states of being and nothingness comes the “flurry,” which Smyth defines as “the convulsive movement of the dying whale.”
Some of the terms in Smyth’s book are so confusing I can understand why O’Brian never tried to introduce them to a wider public. Take, for instance, the following entry:

FLEMISH HORSE, is the outer short foot-rope for the man at the earing; the outer end is spliced round a thimble on the goose-neck of the studding-sail boom-iron. The inner end is seized by its eye within the brace-block-strop and head-earing-cleat.

And another example:

SHACKLE-BREECHING. Two shackles are turned into the breeching, by which it is instantly disconnected from the port ring-bolts. Also, the lug of the cascable is cut open to admit of the bight of the breeching falling into it, thus obviating the loss of time by unreeving.

One of my favorite entries is this one:

PEDRO-A-PIED (pedro pee) The balance on one leg in walking a plank as a proof of sobriety. A man placed one foot on a seam and flourished the other before and behind, singing, “How can a man be drunk when he can dance Pedro-pee,” at which word he placed the foot precisely before the other on the seam, till he proved at least he had not lost his equilibrium. This was an old custom.

Almost as enjoyable to visualize is this entry:

DEAD HORSE. A term applied by seamen to labour which has been paid for in advance. When they commence earning money again, there is in some merchant ships a ceremony performed of dragging round the decks an effigy of their fruitless labour in the shape of a horse, running him up to the yard-arm, and cutting him adrift to fall into the sea amidst loud cheers.

Admiral Smyth, like Samuel Johnson before him, is not averse to imposing his own personality upon his dictionary. Reading the Lexicon, one gradually formulates a picture of the author in one’s mind. He was obviously well read, and not just in the lore of the sea. Shakespeare references and allusions abound in the pages of The Sailor’s Lexicon. Smyth is not opposed to editorializing. He refers to Archimedes as “that wonderful man.” Smyth is clearly a devout Christian. Under the entry for “God” he writes: “We retain the Anglo-Saxon word to designate the ALMIGHTY; signifying good, to do good, doing good, and to benefit; terms such as our classic borrowings cannot pretend to.” Presumably this is aimed at the gods of classical Greek and Latin myths, whom Smyth refers to often (see “Neptune’s Sheep” below) but clearly doesn’t believe in. But Smyth is no stuffy Puritan. He can even smirk at the clergy when an occasion arises, such as in the following entry:

CHURCH-WARDEN. A name given on the coast of Sussex to the shag or cormorant. Why, deponent sayeth not.

And that’s not the only joke in Smyth’s book. Under the entry for the term “keel-hauling” (a vicious punishment in which a sailor was dragged by a series of ropes, weights and pullies under the keel of a ship, his skin scraped raw by barnacles and whatnot), Smyth tells us that this torture has been “Aptly described as ‘under-going a great hard-ship.’”
And here is Smyth’s humorous definition of “loafer”: “One who hangs about a dock, ready for every job except a hard one.”
Like most Englishmen of his time and class, he automatically assumes the superiority of all things English. To wit:

ENGLAND EXPECTS EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY. This is introduced into a naval vocabulary, not as wanting explanation, but in recording the most remarkable signal ever made to a fleet, we may remind the tyro, that these words of Nelson are admirably adapted for all the varying changes of sea-life, whether in times of war or peace.


ENGLISH. A term applied to the vessels and men of the whole empire, and its maritime population. “Indeed,” says Burke in a letter to Admiral Keppel, “I am perfectly convinced that Englishman and seaman are names that must live and die together.”

Being a proper English gentleman of his era, Smyth naturally despised all things American. This attitude comes out subtly over and over again throughout the Lexicon:

CALCULATE, To. This word, though disrated from respectability by American misuse, signified to foretell or prophesy; it is thus used by Shakespeare in the first act of “Julius Caesar.” To calculate the ship’s position, either from astronomical observations or rate of the log.

In that one entry many of Smyth’s leading characteristics are captured: erudition, love of Great Britain and her culture, no-nonsense seamanship, disdain for America.
Under the entry for “gouging” we learn that this was “a cruel practice in one or two American states, now extremely rare, in which a man’s eye was squeezed out by his rival’s thumbnail, the fingers being entangled in the hair for the necessary purchase.” Smyth clearly doesn’t want the reader to presume that any Englishman ever poked at the eyes of a rival. (Likewise, under the entry for “keel-hauling,” we are assured that this cruelty was confined mainly to Dutch ships).
The term “lynch law,” we are told, is “a word recently imported into our parlance from America, signifying illegal and revengeful execution at the wish of a tumultuous mob.”
The “columbiad,” we are told, is “a name given in the United States to a peculiar pattern of gun in their service…its external form does not appear to have been the result of much science, and it is now generally superseded by the Dahlgren pattern.”
If the gun pattern was truly no good, I suppose that is a fair enough definition. But look at how Smyth defines a dubious invention of British origin:

WHIRLER, OR TROUGHTON’S TOP. An ingenious instrument invented by Troughton, and intended to serve as an artificial horizon at sea; but it was found that its centrifugal force was incapable of counteracting the ordinary motion of a ship.

Presumably, the columbiad was at least capable of being fired. Troughton’s top appears to have been a complete flop, but nowhere does Admiral Smyth accuse it of not having been the result of much science. On the contrary, he still considers it “ingenious.”
But Americans aren’t the only ones who are abused in Smyth’s Lexicon. The book is full of slang terms that defame all nationalities but the English. Thus we learn that a “bog-trotter” is “Anyone who lives among the marshy moors, but generally applied to the Emeralders.” “Paddy’s hurricaine” is “Not wind enough to float the pennant.” A “Scotch prize” is “A mistake, worse than no prize…” To “walk Spanish” is “To quit duty without leave; to desert.” Likewise, “French leave” is “Being absent without permission.”
The Dutch, for some reason, seem to have been the most despised of all foreigners. “Dutch courage” is defined as “The excitement inspired by drinking spirits; false energy.” “Dutch reckoning” is “A bad day’s work, all in the wrong.” The word “Dutch” itself is described as “Language, or rather gibberish, which cannot be understood by a listener.” “Dutch consolation” is “Whatever ill befalls you, there’s somebody that’s worse…” And a “Dutch Pump” is “A punishment so contrived that, if the prisoner would not pump hard, he was drowned.”
Also intriguing are the references to other races. A “Jew’s balance” is the sailor’s slang for a hammerhead shark. “Esquimaux,” we are told, is “A name derived from esquimantsic, in the Albinaquis language, eaters of raw flesh. Many tribes in the Arctic region are still ignorant of the art of cookery.”
But, among the non-white, it is persons of African descent who get the most attention from Smyth. His Lexicon is full of information and (more frequently) misinformation about “negroes” (much to the annoyance of the spellchecker on my computer, he never capitalized the word). Consider for instance the following entries:

CHIGRE, CHAGOE, CHIGGRE, OR JIGGER. A very minute insect of tropical countries, which pierces the thick skin of the foot, and breeds there, producing great pain. It is neatly extricated with its sac entire by clever negroes.

COROMONTINES. A peculiar race of negroes, brought from the interior of Africa and sold; but so ferocious as to be greatly dreaded in the West Indies.

In one entry he at least grants the “negro” a bit of cleverness; in the other he seems to ascribe the ferociousness of certain Africans to heredity rather than the fact that they were dragged across an ocean in chains and sold into slavery. Smyth doesn’t seem to be an unalloyed racist. At times the reader can feel him striving to be fair to Africans. In the following entry he takes an oblique swipe at America by noting that the “negroes” under British rule are not slaves. But the left hand taketh away what the right hand giveth:

KROO-MEN OR CREW-MEN. Fishmen. A tribe of African negroes inhabiting Cape Palmas, Krou-settra, and Settra-krou, subjects of Great Britain, and cannot be made slaves; they are especially employed in wooding and watering where hazardous to European constitution.

In other words, Kroo-men are not slaves but they are used by the British to perform tasks too dangerous for a white man. The definition of Kroo-men is expanded under the entry for “pull-away-boys,” even the name of which contains a racial slur: “A name given on the West Coast of Africa to the native Kroomen (sic), who are engaged by the shipping to row boats and do other work not suited to Europeans in that climate.”
“Engaged by the shipping”? “Work not suited to Europeans”? One suspects that if these Africans were subjects of America (or Holland, or France, etc.) Smyth would probably describe them as “forced by their American (or Dutch or French) overlords to perform odious tasks. No better than slaves.”

Here is an entry in which Smyth tries (and fails) to come across as fair-minded by throwing a sop to the African race in his final sentence.

OBI. A horrible sorcery practiced among the negroes in the West Indies, the infliction of which by a threat from the juggler is sufficient to lead the denounced victim to mental disease, despondency, and death. Still the wretched trash gathered together for the obi-spell is not more ridiculous than the amulets of civilized Europe.

Nice try. As opposed to the “Many of my best friends are black” defense of one’s racism, Smyth employs the Kiplingesque “Many of my own breed are equally as ridiculous as the African” defense.
The Lexicon contains numerous references to slavery.
“black-bird catching” and “mangonize” are euphemisms for the slave trade, while the odd term “Pannyar” is defined as “kidnapping negroes on the coast of Africa.” “Sunday,” we are told, is often referred to as “the negro’s holiday.” “Negrohead” is a type of “hard-rolled tobacco,” while the hyphenated “Negro-heads” are defined as “brown loaves,” presumably of bread, though Smyth doesn’t specify.
The offhanded racism of The Sailor’s Lexicon can be quite infuriating. But some of Smyth’s “negro lore” is so goofy as to be downright laughable.
An example of this is the entry “Toko for yam,” which Smyth blandly informs us is, “An expression peculiar to negroes for crying out before being hurt.”
The word “peculiar” is a favorite of Smyth’s and he applies it liberally throughout the book. Unfortunately he rarely explains what it is that qualifies an object as peculiar. Thus we are told that a “call” is “a peculiar silver pipe or whistle, used by the boatswain and his mates…” “calvered salmon” is “salmon prepared in a peculiar manner in early times.” A “canoe” is “a peculiar boat used by several uncivilized nations…” A “columbiad,” as we have seen, is a peculiar gun, and a “coromontine” is “a peculiar race of negroes.” A “morauch” is a “peculiar seal, which has frequently been mistaken on our shores for a mermaid.” An “old woman’s tooth” is a “peculiar chisel” and a “surf boat” is a “peculiar kind of flat-bottomed boat.”
Some definitions are peculiarly enigmatic. Smyth informs us that a “narke” is “A ray of very wonderful electric powers.” But that’s all the information we’re given. From whence this wonderful ray comes, we are left to imagine.
Smyth’s scientific information often sounds somewhat dubious. Under the entry for “eggs,” he informs us that, “These nutritious articles of food might be used longer at sea than is usual. The shell of the egg abounds with small pores, through which the aqueous part of the albumen constantly exhales, and the egg in consequence daily becomes lighter and approaches its decomposition. Reaumur varnished them all over, and thus preserved eggs fresh for two years; then carefully removing the varnish he found that such eggs were still capable of producing chickens.” Hmmm…
Whatever its drawbacks, however, Smyth’s Lexicon gives the reader a real sense of what life at sea was all about in the nineteenth century. The book has a seemingly endless list of abusive names that sailors hurled either at each other or at the landlubbers they so despised: “clodhopper,” “galley growlers,” “jack nasty face.” “jaw-me-down,” “johnny raw,” “king’s hard bargain,” “lob-cock,” “nidget,” “rock scorpion,” “rum-gagger,” “scrovies,” “sea swabber,” “skate lurker,” “snarly yow,” “tom pepper.” And that is only a partial list. Curiously, even nineteenth century seadogs, who probably spent most of their working hours thousands of miles from the nearest courtroom, seemed to have despised lawyers. The term “sea lawyer” is defined as “an idle litigious ‘long-shorer, more given to question orders than to obey them. One of the pests of the navy as well as of the mercantile marine. Also, a name given to the tiger shark.” The “lake lawyer” is “a voracious fish in the lakes of America, called also the mud-fish.” The “sea attorney” is “The ordinary brown and rapacious shark.” The term “land-sharks” is defined as “crimps, pettifogging attorneys, slopmongers, and the canaille infesting the slums of seaport towns.” And under the entry titled “Philadelphia Lawyer” we are told that “’Enough to puzzle a Philadelphia Lawyer’ is a common nautical phrase for an inconsistent story.” (A “crimp,” by the way, is roughly the same thing as a “pimp,” except that he procures seamen for shorthanded ship-owners rather than tricks for prostitutes.) If the book contains any complementary terms that the sailors applied to their colleagues, landsmen, attorneys, or any other classification of people, they must have slipped by me.
Astronomy and meteorology are probably the two most popular subjects in the book. More than O’Brian’s Master and Commander, Smyth’s Lexicon gives the reader a sense of just how reliant sailors were on celestial observation, and how much at the mercy of the weather their lives really were. We’ve all heard of the linguistic debate over how many words the Eskimos have to describe the phenomenon we call “snow.” Some linguists say that the Eskimos have dozens, even hundreds of terms for snow; others say this is an urban legend in need of debunking (for information about the debate see Mark Halpern’s article “The Eskimo Snow Vocabulary: Fallacies and Confusions” in the February 2002 Vocabula Review, or David Wilton’s 2004 book Word Myths, or Geoffrey K. Pullum’s 1991 book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax). I don’t know about the Eskimos and snow, but it is undebunkably true that the sailors of old had nearly a hundred different words for the various types of winds that blow across the face of the earth. They also had countless terms for the variety of rains and clouds and storms they encountered on their voyages. Consider, for instance, the numerous types of weather that are defined over the course of just a few consecutive pages of the Lexicon. A “blunk” is “a sudden squall or stormy weather.” A “blirt” is “A gust of wind and rain.” “Blashy” is a term for wet weather, as in “a blashy day.” A “bloom” is “a peculiar warm blast of wind.” “Blout” is “A northern term for the sudden breaking up of a storm. Blout has been misused for blirt.” A “blore” is “a stiff gale.” A “blow” is “a gale of wind.” The term “blow home,” we are told, refers to a place beyond which the winds begin to cease or moderate. “Blowing great guns and small arms” is sort of the nautical equivalent of raining cats and dogs. It means, “heavy gales; a hurricane.” “Blowing weather” is “A nautical term for a continuance of strong gales.” “Blown itself out” is “said of a falling gale or wind.” To “blow off” is “to clear up in the clouds.” “Blustrous” is an adjective meaning “stormy.” And “blow over” is “said of a gale which is expected to pass away quickly.”
Many of the terms for weather can be clever or funny. A patch of blue in a cloudy sky is referred to as a “Dutchman’s Trousers” (there he goes, ragging on the Dutch again). The opposite of a “Dutchman’s trousers” is a “wool pack,” which describes a few fluffy clouds in an otherwise blue sky (similarly, “Neptune’s sheep” are fluffy white-capped waves on the sea). “Scum-o’-the’sky” are “thin atmospheric vapors.” The “devil’s tablecloth” is “a fleecy-looking cloud which sometimes covers the ‘table’ or flat top of Table Mountain, at the Cape of Good Hope.” An “Elephanter” is a “heavy periodic rain of Bombay.” Other evocative terms for weather include “chocolate gale,” “cat’s paw,” and “devil’s smiles.”
Many of these terms have such tremendous metaphoric potential that they deserve a wider circulation in ordinary English speech. Take, for instance, the term “cape fly-away,” which is defined as “A cloud-bank on the horizon, mistaken for land, which disappears as the ship advances.” If language were a fair and exact science, the phrase “Cape Fly-Away” would long ago have established itself as a term of art for an unreachable goal, a phrase similar in meaning to the better-known “Cloud-Cuckoo-Land” or “The end of the rainbow.” Now that it has become a part of my own vocabulary, I find it indispensable. Sometimes it occurs to me that all my dreams must live on Cape Fly-Away. Whenever I chase after them, they turn to vapor. Neither the illusory “Cloud-Cuckoo-Land,” nor the futile “wild-goose chase,” nor even the elusive “end of the rainbow” can quite convey the same sense of forlorn hope and endless frustration. Only Cape Fly-Away, with its aura of bemused irony, gets it just right. Unfortunately it’s a term with no cultural currency whatsoever, so I can’t use it in conversation without an impossibly long explanatory preface. But I am surprised that no folksong writer ever took advantage of it. Gordon Lightfoot, in his nautical phase (High and Dry, Seven Island Suite, On the High Seas) might have made a chart-topping ballad out of it:

Everybody tells me that you’re not to be believed
If I go chasing after you I’ll only be deceived.
But the years go by and still I find I’m longing for your shore.
O Cape Fly-Away, don’t you torture me no more.
From your headlands to your beach
You’re forever out of reach.
O Cape Fly-Away, don’t you fly away, fly away no more.

You can sing that ditty to the tune of Carefree Highway, provided you’re not too starchy about trivial matters such as meter, syllabification, and so forth.
One of my favorite linguistic phenomena is the reduplication. These are words like “hoity-toity,” “humdrum,” and “hoi polloi,” in which the latter syllables echo the earlier ones. James Joyce’s Ulysses is a cornucopia of reduplications and near-reduplications (“diddleiddle,” “addleaddle,” “ooddleooddle,” etc.), most of which are typographical representations of sights and sounds (“pprrpffrrppffff,” for instance, is the sound of Leopold Bloom farting, while “wavyavyeavyheavyeavyevyevy” is a sort of paint-by-letters portrait of Molly Bloom’s hair, with its endless heavy waves that hang from her head somewhat like the eaves of a roof). Richard Hughes, in A High Wind In Jamaica, also makes extensive use of reduplications and near-reduplications such as “willy-nilly,” “powwow,” “eena deena dina do” (a variant of eenie-meenie-minie-mo), “Frangipani,” “hubble-bubble,” “higgledy-piggledy,” “rococo,” “Box-and-Cox,” “bogey-bogey,” “gabble-gabble,” “ting-a-linged,” “sing-songed,” and many, many more. Until I read The Sailor’s Lexicon, it didn’t occur to me that there might be a thematic link between the use of reduplications in these books and the subject matter of the books. But judging from Admiral Smyth’s Lexicon, no other specialist’s vocabulary is as rife with reduplications as the sailor’s. Old legal dictionaries have their share of reduplications (rixatrix, parco fracto, sowming and rowming) as do old medical dictionaries and other specialty lexicons. But it appears that no profession has produced as many reduplications as the sailor’s. And that may be why A High Wind In Jamaica, most of which takes place at sea, and Ulysses, which recapitulates Homer’s seagoing epic The Odyssey, are so chock-a-block with reduplications. Here is a partial list of the reduplications and near-reduplications to be found in Smyth’s book:


Smyth’s ability to fill his book with so many reduplications is even more impressive than the feats of reduplication accomplished by Joyce and Hughes because, unlike those two worthies, Smyth wasn’t able to make any of his up; he had to go out and find every one of them.
A High Wind in Jamaica offers us a possible clue as to why sailors were so fond of reduplications. In that novel, the Caribbean natives refer to a ghost as a “duppy.” Hughes doesn’t say so, but it would appear that the word is a corruption of double or duplicate. And surely few professions have ever been as ghost-haunted as the old-time mariner’s. Shipwreck and disaster were almost always near at hand. Sailors have immemorially been haunted by the constant presence of the ghosts of their drowned companions, and perhaps that is why, over time, their vocabularies grew so thick with duppies, words whose latter syllables were a ghostly echo of their earlier ones.
Smyth’s book also does an excellent job of emphasizing just how monotonously masculine life at sea could be. There is virtually no word or term in the book that refers to an object that is specifically feminine. To be sure, there are plenty of words that sound like references to females. “Betty Martin,” “Bessy-Lorch,” “Maud,” “Molly,” “Mavis,” “Nancy Dawson,” “Sally” and many other feminine monikers appear in Smyth’s pages. But almost all references to women are facetious, contemptuous, or mythical. The term “moist daughters,” for instance, refers to a celestial constellation. A “maiden” is a “fortress that has never been taken.” The “gunner’s daughter” was a “gun to which boys were married, or lashed, to be punished.” The “lady of the gun-room” was “a gunner’s mate, who takes charge of the after-scuttle, where gunners’ stores are kept.” And, of course, a “mermaid” is “a fabulous sea-creature of which the upper half was said to resemble a woman, the lower half a fish.”
Although Smyth would certainly never have acknowledged the subject directly, there is some suggestion in his book of the homosexuality that must have played a role in sea-faring life. A “cat’s paw,” in addition to being a type of sea breeze, was a “good-looking seaman employed to entice volunteers.” Of the “bull-dance,” Smyth informs us, “At sea it is performed by men only, when without women. It is sometimes called a stag-dance.” And the “shindy” was “a kind of dance among seamen; but also a row.”
For all its wonders, Smyth’s book isn’t entirely free of technical flaws. It has a frustrating habit of directing us to listings that don’t exist. The entry for “negro-boat” says merely, “see ALMODIE.” But there is no listing for “almodie.” The entry for “mansions of the moon” says, “see LUNAR MANSIONS.” But there is no entry for “lunar mansions.” The entry for “mischief” says, “see MASTER of MISCHIEF.” But, alas, there is no entry for “master of mischief.” The entry for “make water” says, “Usually signifies the act of a ship leaking, unless the epithet foul be added. (see FOUL WATER).” My assumption was that making “foul water” must mean “urinating,” but there is no entry for “foul water.” These non-existent listings are the lexical equivalent of Cape Fly-Away – forever out of reach.
Also AWOL are several words and phrases you might expect to see in a nautical dictionary. “Scurvy” and “motley” and “shiver me timbers” and “swashbuckle” for instance, are nowhere to be found, probably because even back in 1867 these terms were more likely to be used by lubbers playing at being sailors than by actual sailors. The Lexicon contains some references to scorbutus, the technical term for scurvy, but I found no mention of “scurvy.”
There are a few other causes of confusion as well. Anyone who has seen Rex Harrison’s memorable performance as Captain Gregg in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir knows that when a seaman says “sheets” he is referring to lines or ropes, not sails (when Gene Tierney’s Mrs. Muir waxes poetic about “sheets bellying in the wind,” Harrison snarls at her, “‘Sails’, blast it all, Madame! Sheets are lines. They’re rope. Rope can’t ‘belly.’”). Smyth supports Captain Gregg; he notes that sheets are ropes or chains attached to the bottom corners of a sail to help extend it and hold it in place. So far, so good. But under the entry for “sheet in the wind,” which you will recall means “half intoxicated,” Smyth tells us that “as the sail trembles and is unsteady, so is a drunken man.” So, is the “sheet” referred to in that expression a sail? Or is the sail trembling because the sheet has come loose and the sail is no longer fastened in place? And if a sheet can also be a sail, why was Captain Gregg so harsh with Mrs. Muir? Likewise, why does he insist that “sailor” is a lubber’s word and that genuine old salts prefer the term “seaman”? If that were true, wouldn’t Smyth have titled his book A Seaman’s Lexicon? Like the Great Eskimo Snow Vocabulary controversy, these questions remain unresolved.
Whatever minor faults it may have, Smyth’s Lexicon provides a more thorough picture of the old-time mariner’s world than can be found in Master and Commander. Smyth clearly loved language and literature. He loved his country (to a fault perhaps). He loved the sea and his fellow sailors. One can easily imagine him concluding his book with the same words that Captain Gregg concludes the memoir he dictates to Mrs. Muir: “To all who follow the hard and honorable profession of the sea, to the after-guard and forecastle alike, to masters, mates, and engineers, to able-bodied and ordinary seamen, to stokers, apprentices, ship’s boys, carpenters, sail-makers, and sea cooks, I dedicated this volume.” Mrs. Muir calls Captain Gregg’s memoir “a very wise book.” The same, despite a few lapses, can be said about Smyth’s book. After finishing the Lexicon I felt as if I had truly learned something about the sea, and that if I should suddenly find myself on a ninteenth-century sailing vessel, I might actually be able to understand some of the nautical lingo that, while reading O’Brian, struck me as so much jibberish (to coin a phrase).
No sooner had I read the final entry in Smyth’s Lexicon — ZUMBRA, a Spanish skiff or yawl. — than I eagerly began looking for an opportunity to use my newly acquired nautical vocabulary in a conversation with my wife. She has a bad habit of always knowing the precise name of every bird, insect, flower, and tree we come across. She actually reads National Audubon Society Field Guides for fun. She never says, “Look at that weird woodpeckery thing over there, with the red eyes and the spotted wings.” It’s always, “Ooo, a rufous-sided towhee.” Or, “Ooo, a black-headed grosbeak.” This was very annoying during the ten years or so that we lived in a cabin in the country and were surrounded by such things as towhees and grosbeaks. All I know about nature is that it’s where we get the raw materials for books and bookshelves. There were whole quadrants of our two acres I never even ventured into. I paid almost no attention to the flora and fauna living there, except to take care to avoid the occasional skunk that greeted me on the way to the mailbox or to sidestep the sharp pointy weeds (“star thistle,” according to my wife) that grew alongside the road and were sharp enough to pierce a bicycle tire. But my wife not only loves all creatures great and small, she knows them by name. When we moved to the city two years ago, I was relieved to see that the towhees and grosbeaks had given way to traffic jams and power poles, things I had no trouble putting names to. In the city, the outdoors is a lot like the indoors, only windier. No longer would I, the reputed word-lover of the family, be shown up by my wife’s vastly superior ability to describe the world around us. When it comes to things like shopping malls, sushi bars, and diamond lanes, I am like an Eskimo in a snowstorm – I never run out of words.
Unfortunately, that was when her interest in architecture began. One or two strolls around the neighborhood were enough to make her dissatisfied with her knowledge of housing styles and building elements. She wanted words to describe all the things she was seeing. So she began acquiring books with titles like A Field Guide to American Houses and An Illustrated Dictionary of Architecture and Storybook Style: America’s Whimsical Homes of the Twenties. Now, whenever we went for a walk together, she’d say things like, “Look at the steep pitch of the catslide on that roof.” Or, “I love arcaded wing-walls, don’t you?” Or, “Isn’t that the smallest jerkinhead gable you’ve ever seen in your life?” After a few weeks of this I began to feel like a bit of a jerkinhead myself. When describing the architectural style of our house to friends I was always happy to use the general term “Mediterranean,” which the real-estate agent who sold us the house had employed. It made it sound like we lived on the Riviera. But not my wife. She wasn’t happy until she could inform me that we lived in a Spanish eclectic house whose flat roof and parapeted walls displayed just a hint of the Pueblo Revival style.
So I finished Admiral Smyth’s Lexicon elated that I now possessed a vast vocabulary of words that were completely foreign to my wife. Alas, it didn’t take long before I realized that I wasn’t likely to come upon a gallied whale while walking the streets of Sacramento, much less a “negro” crying, “Toko for yam!” I was hoping that we might at least encounter a wind that I could describe as a “blurt” or “blashy,” but the occasion never arose.
Fortunately, it was at this time that I came across Robert McKenna’s wildly eclectic The Dictionary of Nautical Literacy. It has listings for all kinds of things you’d never expect to find in a nautical dictionary. For instance, there is a listing for I Love Lucy (two of the sitcom’s episodes were filmed aboard the liner SS Constitution and were later used for promotional purposes by the U.S. Maritime Administration) and for Gilligan’s Island and McHale’s Navy. There is a listing for Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd and Francis in the Navy. There is a listing for Shakespeare’s The Tempest and for John D. MacDonald’s boat-dwelling P.I., Travis McGee. There’s a listing for Johnny Horton’s campy pop song Battle of New Orleans (“In 1814 we took a little trip/Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip.”) and the Village People’s even campier In The Navy. And even Gordon Lightfoot rates a couple of mentions, once in a entry for his song The Ballad of the Yarmouth Castle, and once in an entry for the Edmund Fitzgerald, the steamer whose destruction he memorialized in song.
My wife, for all her intellectual pretensions, is a lifelong fan of I Love Lucy and owns dvd collections containing 52 episodes of the program. I felt certain that, by reading The Dictionary of Nautical Literacy, I would acquire some maritime knowledge that I could reasonably expect to insert into a conversation with her some day.
The book contains numerous linguistic tidbits, such as an explanation of the origin of the phrase “between the devil and the deep blue sea” (in nautical phraseology, “the devil is the deck nearest the rail on a wooden ship, which was difficult to caulk. If not caulked properly, the result could be disastrous.”). I discovered strange-sounding words like “cumshaw” (“Naval slang for the procurement of materials outside the supply chain…”) and “baggywrinkle” (“Strands of old line wrapped around a stay or shroud and used as chafing gear on a sailing ship or sailboat to prevent damage to the sails.”) and “bergy bit” (“Official term used to classify a piece of an iceberg less than three feet high and less than sixteen feet long.”) and “ligan” (“cargo that someone has sunk with the intention of recovering it later. The person usually ties a buoy to ligan to mark its location. Under international rules of salvage, ligan found by other persons must be returned to the owner.). And I learned that the “PT” in PT Boat stands for “patrol torpedo.”
The book also provides mini-histories of many fascinating ships. I learned about the Argentina, an American passenger liner built in 1958 whose funnel (the big smokestack on an ocean liner) was a dummy that concealed a solarium intended for nude sunbathing. I learned about the SS Acquitania, a passenger ship that served in both world wars and, between the wars, was famous for its “booze cruises…which catered to thirsty Americans tormented by Prohibition.” I learned about the Bessemer, an experimental British passenger liner “with a cabin suspended inside the ship that was supposedly capable of maintaining a level position despite the vessel’s motion…Put to the test in 1875, the experiment failed miserably when the ‘Bessemer Saloon’ refused to remain still…The volunteer passengers experienced their worst seasickness ever.” And then there is the sad tale of the Cynthia Olson. The first casualty of December 7th, 1941, the Cynthia Olson was a U.S. merchant marine ship that was carrying lumber to Hawaii when it was struck by a Japanese torpedo an hour before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It sank with no survivors.
Like Smyth’s lexicon, McKenna’s dictionary has its faults. I spotted about one error for every letter of the alphabet. For one thing, McKenna seems unaware that the word “novel” is used to describe works of fiction. Thus, he labels numerous books novels that aren’t: William F. Buckley’s memoir Atlantic High, John Steinbeck’s nonfiction work The Log of the Sea of Cortez, The Sway of the Grand Saloon: A Social History of the North Atlantic by John Malcolm Brinnin, and Voyage of the Damned, an account of the true-life tragedy of the German-Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis written by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s journalistic work The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor is labeled a “novella.”
Elsewhere, under the entry for “John Barth”, McKenna describes Barth’s novel Sabbatical as the story of “a couple taking a last sailing cruise around Chesapeake Bay before their child is born.” Actually, that is the plot of Barth’s novel The Tidewater Tales, although McKenna’s confusion is understandable; the two novels share some of the same characters and situations, both books contain endless digressive musings about much better works of literature (The Odyssey, The Thousand and One Nights, etc.), and both are marred by the usual Barthian farrago of metafictional clichés (like McKenna himself, Barth is someone whose idea of what constitutes a novel could probably stand some refinement), but in Sabbatical the pregnant couple abort their unborn twins, whereas in The Tidewater Tales the twins (Adam and Eve – clever, eh?) are permitted a live birth.
Under an entry for the phrase “let the cat out of the bag,” McKenna regurgitates the oft-repeated explanation that the term is a reference to the cat-o’-nine-tails, and thus of nautical origin. In his book Word Myths, David Wilton convincingly debunks this linguistic legend. According to Wilton, “The phrase refers to an old scam of selling someone a suckling pig at market and then surreptitiously substituting a cat for the pig.” Wilton notes that there is a tendency among nautical enthusiasts to “attribute a maritime origin to just about every word and phrase they can think of.” The practice is so rampant that skeptical etymologists at the website www.wordorigins.org have given it the acronym CANOE, for Conspiracy to Attribute Nautical Origins to Everything. So perhaps I should check the group’s website before accepting McKenna’s derivation of “between the devil and the deep blue sea” and other phrases to which he attributes nautical origins.
Some of McKenna’s figures don’t quite add up either. Under the listing for Sir Francis Charles Chichester we are told that the British adventurer was born in 1901 and that he circumnavigated the globe in 1967 at the age of sixty-four. If a lubber like me can catch this many mistakes in a nautical dictionary, it seems likely that an expert on nautical matters might find a lot more of them.
What’s more, just as Smyth overused the word “peculiar,” McKenna overuses the word “classic.” And he appears to use it somewhat indiscriminately too. The 1953 film Beneath the Twelve-Mile Reef, the 1964 film Bikini Beach, the 1921 novel The Brassbounder, the 1886 novel The Casting Away of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine, the 1956 book The Compleat Cruiser, the 1951 novel The Cruel Sea, the 1896 narrative The Cruise of the Alerte, and the 1964-68 TV series Gilligan’s Island are just a few of McKenna’s questionable “classics.” Meanwhile, none of Joseph Conrad’s works is labeled a classic, nor are the films Captain Blood or The Caine Mutiny. Nor, for that matter, are Chris Craft’s legendary wooden boats.
Like Smyth, McKenna fills his book with personal opinions, some of them highly questionable. He labels James Cameron’s 1998 film Titanic “unbelievably accurate,” although many linguists have derided the script’s anachronistic dialog (see David Carkeet’s essay Titanic Blunders in the December 2000 issue of the Vocabula Review).
Also questionable are some of McKenna’s word choices. For instance, he says that the 1961 film Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea “spurred a popular television series of the same name.” The success of the film may have spurred producer Irwin Allen’s decision to adapt the material for a weekly network series, but the film itself didn’t spur the series; it spawned it. It’s curious that McKenna would prefer a lubber’s word like spur to the more aquatic spawn. (By the way, what actually spurred the series, according to the Internet Movie Database, was the fact that Allen, for the film, spent a then-humongous sum of $400,000 on submarine models and interiors and he was eager to get as much use out of them as possible. Curious tidbits of information, like that one — or the little-known fact that the SS Minnow, of Gilligan’s Island fame, was named for Newton Minow, the FCC chairman who coined the phrase “a vast wasteland” as a description of television at its worst – might have made McKenna’s book even more of a delight for trivia enthusiasts and reference-book junkies.)
Most dictionary and encyclopedia compilers have difficulty scrounging up entries for the sections headed by troublesome letters such as X and Z. But McKenna seems to have done even less scrounging than most. His “Z” section, for instance, contains only eleven entries and covers barely a full page. This strikes me as nothing more than laziness on his part, especially considering the fact that there are numerous bodies of water that begin with the letter Z (the Zuider Zee is the only one listed in McKenna’s book). One can understand the omission of such minor rivers as Iran’s obscure Zayandeh Rud, which is a mere 250 miles long, Tajikistan’s Zeravshan (460 miles), and Russia’s Zeya (800 miles). But how about the Zaire River? At 2,720 miles long it is the second longest river in Africa, after the Nile (which, despite being the longest river in the world, didn’t merit an entry either) and nearly 400 miles longer than the Mississippi (which rates an entry of its own). Kazakhstan’s 700-square-mile Zaysan Lake gets no entry, but Panama’s 163-square-mile Gatun Lake does. McKenna would probably argue that his book concerns itself with the sea more than with rivers and lakes, and that Gatun Lake, because it supplies water to the Panama Canal, a major passage for ocean-going vessels, is therefore more deserving of an entry than the landlocked Zaysan Lake, which is surrounded by mountains. Fair enough. But I still think he could have worked harder to dredge up a few more Z entries. A nautical dictionary that has an entry for the 1949 Broadway musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (the story takes place aboard the ocean liner Ile de France) ought to make a little room for the Zaca, the 118-foot schooner owned by Errol Flynn, star of such nautical epics as Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk. The Zaca has a history more colorful than many of the boats listed in McKenna’s dictionary. Built in 1929, it served as a radio ship in World War II and reported the positions of Japanese ships off the coast of California. It was used by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth in the making of The Lady from Shang-hai. Flynn died aboard the yacht in the arms of his underage girlfriend, Beverly Aadland. I don’t know how McKenna could have overlooked such a storied vessel, but I suppose I should at least give him credit for having avoided the mistake, perpetuated by so many reference works (the Wikipedia, the Internet Movie Database, and David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, to name just three) of asserting that the expression “in like Flynn” is a reference to Errol Flynn and his amatory skills (see Wilton’s Word Myths for the details of this linguistic urban legend). McKenna might also have fattened up his Z section with an entry for “zigzag,” which is a time-honored evasive maneuver by which ships avoid the guns and torpedoes of their pursuers. (McKenna doesn’t ignore the term entirely. It appears under the entry for the USS Indianapolis. Charles B. McVay, captain of that ill-fated 610-foot heavy cruiser, was court-martialed for failing to order a zigzag course for his ship after it delivered the atomic bomb to Tinian, the tiny Pacific island from which the Enola Gay departed on its historic mission over Hiroshima. The Indianapolis was torpedoed on its way home and sank in twelve minutes. Nearly 900 of her crewman died in the tragedy. The captain later committed suicide. The word “zigzag” is a near-reduplication that no doubt echoed in the minds of the Indianapolis’ survivors for the rest of their lives.)
But despite its shortcomings, McKenna’s book presents enough curious nautical facts to keep the reader riveted. For instance, I was fascinated to learn of the 1898 novel Futility: Or The Wreck of the Titan that nearly predicted the Titanic disaster fourteen years before it occurred. The book, by Morgan Robertson, told “the far-fetched tale…of an unsinkable passenger liner, the Titan, that sank on its maiden voyage after hitting an iceberg.”
Also interesting was the battle on September 14, 1914 between Germany’s Cap Trafalgar and the Cunard Line’s SS Carmania, which had been converted to British military use. The British ship sunk the German ship in the only battle ever waged between two refitted passenger liners.
Have you ever heard of the War of Jenkins’ Ear? It was fought between Great Britain and Spain from 1739 to 1742. According to McKenna, “The war took its name from Robert Jenkins, captain of the English ship Rebecca, who claimed the Spanish had cut off his ear in 1731. He displayed the ear in the House of Commons and so aroused public opinion that the government declared war on October 23, 1739.”
The candy that we call “Cracker Jack” is, according to McKenna, “believed to have been inspired by a number of sea dishes, including…’dandyfunk,’ a mixture of broken biscuits and molasses.” That’s a concoction similar to the treat Smyth identified as “midshipman’s nuts.” I wonder how popular the product would have become if it had been named Dandy Funk or, even worse, Midshipman’s Nuts. My wife has been known to consume a box of Cracker Jack at a sporting event every now and then. I can’t wait to let slip the information about midshipman’s nuts the next time she is midway through a box. Talk about a surprise in every package!
Every page of The Dictionary of Nautical Literacy is like a box of Cracker Jack, because there is at least one true surprise to be found there. I had no difficulty reading it from cover to cover. And when I finished it I discovered the greatest surprise of all. I had just completed a trilogy! A Sea of Words, The Sailor’s Lexicon, and The Dictionary of Nautical Literacy may not have been written by the same author, they may not be linked by a continuous storyline or continuing characters, but at the very least they qualify as a “cycle.” All three books are linked by a common theme: the language and lore of the sea. And I had read all three of them in a row, just the way a trilogy is supposed to be read.
I was so pleased with myself when I finished McKenna’s book that I actually went outside and spent a half hour raking leaves from my front lawn, something I am ordinarily loath to do. (I always tell my wife that a good thirty minutes of yard work every year or two does a body good.) This all happened a few months back, and it seems to have been a watershed event in my life as a reader. Since then I have read the final installment of several trilogies that have been hanging fire for years on the shelves of my library, including Robertson Davies’ Salterton, Deptford, and Cornish trilogies, and Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor.
At this rate, I’ll be dancing to the music of time before my next encounter with a garden rake.

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