Tag: Mark Liberman

Patrick O’Brian for St. Patrick’s Day

Sunday, 17 March, 2019

Top o’ the morning to all Rainy Day readers on this St. Patrick’s Day. We’re celebrating with a tribute to one of the many Patricks who have brought honour and glory to the saint’s chosen name: Patrick O’Brian, the author of the popular Aubrey-Maturin historical novels.

The language Patrick O’Brian uses in his Aubrey-Maturin series impresses not just because of the breadth and depth of the terminology, but because of how it’s used. In O’Brian’s hands, language paints a vivid canvas filled with nature, machines, humour, humanity and horror. O’Brian invents language and makes words do his bidding in a way that few writers have achieved. In this snippet from The Far Side of the World, Jack Aubrey, in a hurry to continue his voyage, constructs a device to raise the anchor because the usual mechanism — the capstan — has jammed:

“With scarcely a pause Jack called the midshipmen. ‘I will show you how we weigh with a voyol,’ he said. ‘Take notice. You don’t often see it done, but it may save you a tide of the first consequence.’ They followed him below to the mangerboard, where he observed, ‘This is a voyol with a difference.’ “Bonden, a fellow officer, brings the heavy sheaved block.” ‘Watch now. He makes it fast to the cable — he reeves the jeer-fall through it — the jeer-fall is brought to the capstan, with the standing part belayed to the bitts. So you get a direct runner-purchase instead of a dead nip, do you understand?'”

The Far Side of the World Do you understand? Most readers don’t, especially since “mangerboard” and “jeer-fall’ do not appear in the 12-volume Oxford English Dictionary or its several supplements. Still, most readers can see for themselves what O’Brian has left unsaid: Aubrey bent under a hanging lantern in the dappled half-light below decks surrounded by his midshipmen in their top hats, showing them an alternative way to raise an anchor.

Writing in The New York Times, Jason Epstein noted: “There is something immensely satisfying about the power of such passages to create within the reader’s own imagination the scene in question, whether the subject is nautical technology or Maturin’s rare species or Admiralty politics — advancement is always on Aubrey’s mind — or in hushed tones Maturin’s main profession, spycraft.”

Many years ago, Mark Liberman delved deeper into the etymological aspects of O’Brian’s vocabulary in a post at Language Log. Jack says that he may “perish of mere want” when his dinner is delayed and this leads Liberman to observe: “The modern accretion on mere, which typically seems to be missing in the earlier usage, is the implication that the referent of the modified noun is somehow paltry: a mere trickle, a mere drop in the ocean, a mere gesture.”

See, regardless of whether one is an escapist or a linguist, Patrick O’Brian offers endless entertainment and enlightenment.

“We will wet the swab and when it is handsomely awash, why then perhaps we might try a little music, if that would not be disagreeable to you,” says Jack to Maturin early in the first chapter of Master and Commander. What’s a swab? And why wet it? Well, when Captain Jack Aubrey returns to his Gibraltar hotel room after having spent a pleasant evening listening to a performance of Locatelli’s C major quartet, he’s presented with a letter confirming his command of His Majesty’s Sloop Sophie. Elated, he immediately orders “cold roast pollo” and “two bottles of vino.” When he wakes up the following morning the first thing he does is go to a naval outfitter’s and have a “heavy, massive epaulette” fixed on his left shoulder. That’s the “swab” and wetting it means drinking a toast to his good fortune.

Today, let us toast to St. Patrick and all the great Patricks named after him.