Sentence of the Week: Week 6

Five minutes later the bow-chaser, neatly slung by its train-loops, side-loops, pommelion and muzzle, floated gently over the Sophie’s fo’c’sle within half an inch of its ideal resting-place.

Oh, I do so love a good sea yarn, and the Patrick O’Brian series of Jack Aubrey novels is among the best. You may know it better from the Russell Crowe movie, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

Cover Photo from Master and Commander
A fabulous, jargonful book.

This sentence is pulled at random from the novel and completely indicative of two countervailing issues. First, this guy O’Brian knows his nautical stuff. Second, the reader digging into this world can be at a loss about what the exact heck is going on here.

Let me ask a few questions.

  • Do you know what a bow-chaser is?
  • Do you know what train-loops are? (I’m not even certain I should put that sentence in the plural.)
  • Or a pommelion?

On other nearby pages, I ran into these words:

  • Puddening. Definition: A bunch of soft material to prevent chafing between spars (you know what those are, right?) or the like.
  • Breeched. Definition: Something you do to cannon on a sailing vessel that I’m still uncertain about, but it does not involve pants or slacks.
  • Frapped. Definition: Another thing you do to cannon on a sailing vessel that is hard to explain but clearly very specific and definitive. I know this word from earning my Pioneering merit badge in Boy Scouts. Is it the same thing?
  • Sweeps. Definition: Oh. Oh. I got this. Oars.
  • “Trice up. Lay out.” Definition: A command given to the crew that involves raising the sheets — sails to us land lubbers — and something else that I can’t figure out.

Okay, that was fun, but my point is to talk about jargon in communication, and there is no other environment more jargonly than sailing. Who else would call rope a “line?” By the way, “larboard” is what we now call “port.” Forgive me. This game could go on forever. And ever. Don’t believe me? Here’s a link to a Wikipedia  entry for nautical terms that has nearly 900 entries.

So, what’s a poor writer in 21st Century America supposed to do?

Rule #1: Avoid jargon.

Rule #2: Avoid jargon.

Rule #3: Avoid talking about sailing. Except to sailors. And they just love this stuff. The longest dinner of your life will be the dinner you sit next to someone who loves sailing. The second worst dinner companion is a carpenter. Who really wants to hear about “S4S?”

Here’s my suggestion for those of us who have to communicate with the real world. Just after you complete your hunt for cliches, set sail on a jargon cruise. Hoist high the sheets, let the braces do something or another, and let out the blah, blah, blah.

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