Over the Bar

Jul 24, 2018 | Over the Bar

Shipshape language

Living on the Cape and Islands, we know we are surrounded by water even if sometimes we take that blessing for granted. But the experiences of people who live and work on the sea influence and define a much broader world, far beyond shoreline communities. And there’s no better way to realize and appreciate how influential seafaring life is to our whole culture than by turning to words themselves, the amazing tools that make humans unique, that we use to define how we see ourselves.

Are you onboard with this idea? Maybe if I bear down, get my bearings and navigate the argument, you might come to agree that this position surely holds water. In the meantime, all I ask is that you cut me a little slack, a little leeway to make my case .

It’s no accident that pretty much everything we talk about has nautical language standing by to make the point. Are we getting started? Sure, we’re shoving off and underway. Do we see problems ahead? Looks like we might face choppy seas and some headwind. Are we going to cut and run? Of course not, we’ll stay the course and it’s full steam ahead to the bitter end. If we batten down the hatches and know the ropes, it won’t really matter if sometimes we feel like we’re over our heads. We won’t let anyone take the wind out of our sails. Sooner or later we’re sure to make a windfall.

Then again, sometimes you need to be on the lookout, especially when it comes to cutting deals to make headway. We all know there are pirates out there who might like to bait and switch, not to mention sharks, and all the scuttlebutt in the world won’t change that. Best to keep a wide berth around these fly-by-nights. Being a swashbuckler is one thing, swearing like a drunken sailor or even getting three sheets to the wind once in a while is no disqualifier, but if you don’t like the cut of someone’s jib, better to steer clear.

That said, all of us get under the weather sometimes, at loggerheads with life, feel like we need an emotional overhaul. My experience has been that keeping a steady hand on the tiller, not going overboard one way or another, toeing the line when necessary, all help keep me afloat. I try not to tack from one position to another, or spend too much time checking my wake – although I suppose I have been known to make waves occasionally. Steady as she goes might be my motto .

Why does all this lingo matter? It speaks to how deeply embedded mariners and fishermen are in our psyches. It evokes historic connections without ever actually pointing them out. It reinforces the understanding that celebrating and supporting the people who invented this language, whose daily lives inspired everyone to adopt it for their own, who still practice its literal meanings, is important and worthwhile.

It’s one more way to remind everyone, from public policy managers to neighbors on the pier, that despite all the controversies these salty dogs might dredge up, and the crosscurrents they can roil, without them all of us are in danger, big picture, of going down with the ship.


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