Daily Archives: October 8, 2007

Wordstruck In A Sea Of Words

In a recent post I made a little play on words of the phrase “time and tide wait for no man,” which reminded me of two of my favorite authors, Robert MacNeil and Patrick O’Brian.

Long-time PBS viewers know Robert MacNeil as one of the original hosts of the PBS News Hour, together with Jim Lehrer. Mr. MacNeil left the News Hour about a decade ago to devote full-time to his writing. Several years before he wrote a wonderful memoir about growing up in Nova Scotia as the son of a man of the sea, Wordstruck. I used to listen to audio books when I went to the gym, and recall the following passage, one that was especially memorable in that Mr. MacNeil was the reader of his own book, and so I heard him read his wonderful passage:

Awareness of the sea used to be far more common than it is today, when air travel has made the oceans seem puny and most people think of boats only for pleasure. Experience of the sea used to be central in the lives of the English-speaking peoples; and knowledge of oceans was vital to commerce, exploiration, and conquest.

The sea was so familiar a part of Western life from the Elizabethans to the twentieth centure that expressions relating to it became metaphors for activities on the land. Such expressions filled the language I heard or read in the books about the sea that I began devouring at twelve or thirteen.

Everybody depended on his ship coming in. They are all in the same boat, waiting till the bitter end. In everyday life, they would back and fill, or be taken down a peg or two if they didn’t know the ropes. They had to keep a weather eye open and give a stranger a wide berth if he was bearing down on them and if they didn’t like the cut of his jib, because he might be armed to the teeth, at least until he showed his true colors or nailed his colors to the the mast. If he spliced the mainbrace before the sun was over the yardarm, put too much grog on the rocks and down the hatch, got three sheets to the wind and keeled over, he might have to trim his sails and pour oil on troubled waters to get on an even keel, or risk being keel-hauled. If they slacked off or rested on their oars, or weren’t pulling their own weight,or sailed too close to the wind, someone might lower the boom and take the wind out of their sails, forcing them to chart a new course. In the doldrums, if they didn’t make headway and were dead in the water, they might be all at sea and long for a safe harbor, because time and tide can wait for no man. If landlubbers shoved off and ventured on the high seas, come hell or high water, where it wasn’t all plain sailing, they’d have to hit the decks and haul it or be half seas over and even pooped before they could drop anchor or barge in to put their port side alongside the dock for the longshoremen to discharge cargo. If some tar listened to too much scuttlebutt and talked a lot of bilge, they might gime him some leeway or tell him to pipe down or put him in the booby hatch if he and the captain were at loggerheads. If a ship was first-rate, and the captain no figurehead, he’d have her shipshape from stem to stern, so by and large sh’d get a clean bill of health. Then the swab could clear the decks, stow it, lower the gangway, don his middy blouse and peajacket, and, if he wasn’t too hard up, go off on his own hook and see whether the broad-beamed lady pacing the widow’s walk still liked him or was just a fairweather friend.

My own favorite writer about the sea is Patrick O’Brian, the author of the best series of histrorical novels ever written about the sea, the Aubrey-Maturin sea novels. See for example, my post, which in one paragraph of word-play names all of the novels in this series.

Here is the opening of Post Captain:

At first dawn the swathes of rain drifting eastwards across the Channel parted long enough to show that the chase had altered course. The Charwell had been in her wake most of the night, running seven knots in spite of her foul bottom, and now they were no much above a mile and a half apart. The ship ahead was turning, turning,coming up into the wind; and the silence along the frigate’s decks took on a new quality as every man aboard saw her two rows of gun-ports come into view. This was the first clear sight they had had of her since the look-out hailed the deck in the growing darkness to report a ship hull-down on the horizon, one point on the larboard bow. She was then steering north-north-east, and it was the general opinion aboard the Charwell that she was either one of a scattered French convoy or an American blockade-runner hoping to reach Brest under cover of the moonless night.

The Aubrey-Maturin novels are set in the time of the Napoleonic wars, and are filled with so many words of the sea — due to the many hours O’Brian spent in the Admiralty library reading the dispatches and log-books of that era — that Dean King, John B. Hattendorf, and J. Worth Estes compiled a wonderful dictionary, A Sea Of Words, to assist the reader in parsing O’Brian’s text.

Here are some of the terms and words defined therein, in the context of the sea, that are also used in computer and software technology today. I have added some examples, and in some cases have taken “artistic license” in my choice of the words and examples:

bottom A contract similar to a mortgage, in which a shipowner borrows money to enable him to complete a voyage and pledges the ship as security for repayment.

Use control-end to move to the bottom of the current buffer.

bugger A sodomite. In vulgar language, a term of abuse or insult; often, however, simply “chap” or “fellow.” Also refers to something that is a great nuisance.

“Mr. Edison, I am informed, was up the previous night fixing a “bug” in his phonograph, an expression signifying diffculty, implying that an insect has secreted itself inside and is the cause of the difficulty.” [1]

auk A diving bird of the family Alciae, which includes the guille-mot, puffin, razor-bill, little auk, and the extinct greak auk.

Awk was one of the first languages that emphasized string-processing above all.

anchor-ring The large ring on the shank of an anchor for attaching the anchor CABLE.

I use the anchor HTML tag frequently.

block A pulley or combination of pulleys mounted in a wooden or metal case …

bomb A small war vessel carrying mortars for throwing bombs and also known as a bomb-galiot … See also KETCH.

My bad. My latest patch caused the code to bomb and so I have added code to catch the exception.

booby A fish-eating, island-dwelling bird of topical and subtropical coasts and the norther Pacific… Booby also means a lubber, a clown, or nincompoop.

Mr. Schwartz was joined on the dais by Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates in a panel discussion about the use of open-source in the enterprise.

boot-top To clean the upper part of a ship’s botton by daybing it over with a coat or mixture of tallow, sulfur, resing, etc.
Boot-topping is chiefly performed where thee is no dock or when there is not enough time to clean the whole bottom.

You need to re-boot the machine after installing the new kernel version.

buss A small, strong vessel of about 60 tons prevalent in the North Sea fishing industry in the 17th and 18th centuries.

There is a bad memory bus on this mobo.

cable The strong thick rope to which a ship’s anchor is fastened.

Have you seen my ethernet cable?

cat A sturdy COLLIER, lacking a figurehead, capable of hauling up to 600 tons of coal. See also CAT-O’NINE-TAILS

Use the cat command to combine several files into one.

cathead or cat A short, stout beam of timber projecting almost horizontally from the side of a ship’s BOW …

chain-shot or chain A kind of shot formed of two balls, or half-balls, conntected by a chain …

Linux is based in part on the GNU tool chain.

chain-wail or channel A broad, thick plank that projects horizontally from each of a ship’s sides abreast of a MAST, distinguished as the FORE, MAIN, or MIZZEN channel …

channel See CHAIN-WALE

The I/O channel seems shaky today.

chronometer An instrument for measuring time, specifically one adjusted to keep accurate time in all variations of temperature. First successfully used for accurately determined longitute in 1736.

Here’s the command you need to add to crontab that is used by the cron command.

consol An abbreviation of COnsolidated Annuities, the government securities of Great Britain.

I use putty to access the remote console.

dodo An extinct bird that once lived on the island of MAURITIUS; it had a massive clumsy body and small wings of no used for flight.


dollar The English name for the pepso or piece of eight.

The default command prompt is the dollar sign.

driver A large sail formerly used at the aftermost part of a ship in fair weather, …

Greg K-H is working to open up more kernel drivers.

dump-bolt A short bolt driven into a plank and timber as a partial security prior to a more thorough fastening.

The Vista memory dump ran over 2GB.

dun An importunate creditor or an agent employed to collect debts.

I debugged the patch and mailed it to Linus. We are done with this problem.

fiddle A rack or rail or other contrivance to prevent dishes and cups from rolling off a ship’s table in bad weather.

Stop fiddling with my code.

file An artful, cunning, or shrewd person; a fellow or COVE. In military use, a small column of men.

Ted T’so is one of the authors of the ext2 filesystem.

flip Beer and spirits, sweetend and heated with a hot iron.

Use exor to flip the bits. Dave uses beer to flip out while blogging

flog the glass To shake the WATCH-GLASS in order to speed up the passage of the sand inside and shorten the WATCH.

Dave worked late last night, flogging his blog — beer in hand — in a post about the words of the sea.

fore A part of a ship that lies near the BOW or in that direction.

You just need to add a for loop after line 25 to strip off trailing blanks.

Also, Dave took a break from flogging his blog yesterday to play golf, and was heard shouting “FORE!” after every drive.

for reach The distance a ship’s momentum will shoot her up into the wind when the BOW is swinging that way while TACKING. To fore reach is to shoot ahead or to draw ahead of anothing vessel when CLOSE-HAULED.

That for loop should use the “foreach” iterator.

forme A body of type secured in a metal frame for printing at one impression.

Use PHP to define a web form.

gaol British spelling of “jail.”

This service runs under a root jail.

gores Sloping angles at one or both ends of a sail to widen it or increase its depth.

One of the Gore’s, I am told, invented the Internet.

hack A horse or ordinary riding, as distinguished from cross-country, military, or other special riding … Also, a person whose services may be hired for any kind of work required of him; a common drudge.

I hacked at the code all night.

hallo An exclamation to incite dogs to the chase, also to call attention at a distance or to express surprise.

print “hello world”

hard A firm beach or foreshore.

The program took a hard stop, freezing the hardware.

head A lavatory for seamen, found in the “head” or FORE part of the ship.

Use the “h” command to move to the head of the file.

jakes A privy.

I know you think it is full of s–t, but it’s called “Jikes,” not “Jakes!”

link A torch made of tow, or yarn, and pitch, was, or tallow and used to light one’s way through the streets.

Add a link to the home page for the FAQ.

log A devicwe for measuring the speed of a ship (see LOG-LINE LOG-SHIP); also, short for LOG BOOK.

Check the log files.

log-book or log The daily record of a ship’s journey, a book ruled in columns like a LOG-BOARD, into which the account of the log-board was transcribed every day along with other information such as maneuvers, weather,crew activity, actions, and and encounters.

I flogged my blog — my weB LOG — last night writing about the words of the sea.

Li Po (701-762) One of the most acclaimed Chinese lyric poets, the author of nearly 2000 poems.

Use a LIPO queue for this procedure. Oops, make that LIFO. I’ve been reading too much Chinese poetry.

main A much-used adjective on board ship, meaning “principal,” as in the MAINMAST.

proc main(…)

main works The principal fortifications of a place

make and mend A time designated for seamen to repair their clothes, a period of relative leisure.

I mended the bug, but don’t forget to run make.

make sail To spread a sail or sails; to bring a voyage.

To build a new version of the SAIL compiler, just type “make sail.”

mark The intervals of a LEAD-LINE, indicated by attachments that could be seen easily or felt by the LEADSMAN. Two FATHOMS was marked by 2 strips of leather, 3 fathoms by 3 strips of leather.

Please send me a list of your Firefox bookmarks.

Firefox can import your IE bookmarks.

mark twain On a LEAD-LINE, the two-FATHOM mark.

Some authors take their names from the sea, others are given the names of Nobel prize-winners, as was the case for Linus Torvalds.

mouse Used in the RIGGING, a small collar of SPUNYARN for holding something in place.

I prefer an optical mouse.

oldster A MIDSHIPMAN with experience, one of four years’ standing.

poop A short, raised aftermost deck of a ship, above the QUARTERDECK, found only in very large sailing ships. Also, a ship is said to be “pooped” when a heavy sea breaks over a vessels STERN, a potentially hazardous situation in a GALE.

I worked on that hack all last night. I’m pooped.

porter A dark-brown slightly bitter beer brewed from malt …

Dave was the porter of the code to produce the Windows version. He also drank a lot of porter while doing so.


The GUNWALE of a vessel;

post The upright timber on which the RUDDER is hung; the STERNPOST.

I wrote a blog post about the words of the sea today.

post-captain or post The rank in the Royal Navy indicating the receipt of a COMMISSION as officer in command of a POST SHIP.

post ship In the Royal Navy, a RATEd ship (one having no less than 20 guns), …

queue A long plait of hair that hangs down behind fromthe head or from a wig; a pigtail.

You need a priority queue in this situation.

ragabash An idle, worthless person; rabble or riffraff.

Ravi Shankar spent last night writing a shell script.

rig The general way in which the MASTS and SAILS of a vessel are arranged.

That’s a sweet rig you have. Did you build it from scratch?

larboard The lefthand, or port, side of a ship when looking toward the BOW, as opposed to STARBOARD. The term was later replaced by “port” to avoid confusion with “starboard.”


pipe The BOATSWAIN’s whistle, a silver pipe used by the boatswain to convey orders to the crew.

Pipe the output of the program into the “sort” command.

suet The hard fat around the loins and kidneys of cattle and sheep.

You need to type “su” before doing it.

sun-dog A mock sun, perhelion.

See Jonathan’s latest blog post?

tag A brief and usually familiar quotation added for substance of special effect. A cliche, proverb, or other short, conventional idea used to embellish discourse.

I use del.icio.us to tag my favorite articles.

tar A substance made from the resin of pine trees and use to preserve hemp rope,which otherwise would rot when wet, and to preserve a ship’s RIGGING; also a nickname for a silor from the fact that sailors’ canvas coats and hats were tarred against precipitation. An essential for maintaining ships, tar of the best quality came from Sweden, but its hight costdrove suppliers to America, where the pine forests of North Carolina became an important source.

Here’s the tar-ball with my latest version.

tinker A usually itinerant mender of pots, kettles, and other metal household utensils.

If you’re going to tinker with the code, then at least write some tests.

send See SCEND

Send Dave a nice comment about his blog post about the words of the sea.

scratch Hastily gathered or assembled.

I built my Ubuntu box from scratch, using parts I bought from newegg.

ketch A strongly build two-masted vessel, originally used primarily for coastal trading and adapted by the English, French, and Dutch navies during the Napoleonic wars to tend the fleets. Also, with the forward section largely open, the KETCH was perfect for the mounting of a large MORTAR and thus was much used by the English as a BOMB-vessel, or bomb-ketch.

Be sure to add code to catch the exception if the file doesn’t exist.

save-all Another name for WATER SAIL. Also a drip pan to collect moisture.

Use the save-all command before exiting the editor to avoid losing your work.

scroll In shipbuilding, a curbed timber bolted to the KNEE of the HEAD.

Use PgDn to scroll down the page.

span The distance from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the little finger.

The span primitive finds the longest subsequence of characters matching a pattern.

visto Vista.

The wird “visto” occurs between the words “Visigothic” and “vitriol” in “A Sea of Words.” Perhaps O’Brian was subtly reminding us of the Napoleon who once dominated the software industry.

wombat Any of the stocky burrowing marsupials native to Austraili and Tasmania and resembling small bears.

Wombats are cute, but not as cute as the Linux mascot, Tux, a penguin.

worm A double or single screw at the end of a rod.

Linux, unlike Windows, is not riddled with worms. With Windows you get screwed by both viruses and worms, just like having a rod shoved up …

yawl A small craft with two MASTS, FORE-AND-AFT rigged.

Colloquial expression used by some of the employees of Red Hat who work in the corporate HQ in North Carolina, The Tar Heel State. See TAR.

I hope Y’all had fun reading this post. I know I had fun writing it.


1. Though paraphrased, this is the first instance of the use of the word “bug” as we use it today in programming. See The Revised Oxford English Dictionary, under “bug.”

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