Jack Lagan has written a delightful nautical dictionary (or sorts) best described in his own words as a ” loose-footed lexicon: a foot-loose, fancy-free and fore-and-aft alphabetic list of all the words known by Jack Lagan about the sea, seafarers, and seafaring.”
Since Jack is British, the U.S. reader must beware of the usual spelling anomalies — such as colour and realise — but this book isn’t meant to be used as a spelling guide anyway. Instead it’s a compendium of interesting and useful nautical information and trivia which Jack felt compelled to include. He offers quotes from classic nautical literature, tables and formulas of interest, and a touch of humor (oops, make that humour).
With this book you learn that one toilet on a British yacht is referred to as the “heads” (and that in his opinion the head or heads is the nadir of plumbing expertise). You learn that jabs are shots (the immunization variety), a kicking strap is a vang, and that crosstrees are spreaders. Armed with that sort of knowledge alone, you might be able to discuss sailing with a British friend without the occasional torch/flashlight or knock-me-up type of disconnect.
Jack also includes the historical background of certain nautical terms and discusses the evolution of their common uses. For example, shanghai is defined as “to forcibly recruit someone to the marine (usually through a combination of drink, drugs, and the odd blow over the head with a belaying pin); a great old Royal Navy tradition taken up by many other nations. Shanghai itself is a fascinating city. In Chinese ‘shang’ is used to signify the start of something and ‘hai’ means ‘sea;’so Shanghai is on the Huangpu River just south of where it joins the estuary of the magnificent Yangzi.”
He also takes on the age-old debate of “ship versus boat” and sums it up with: “Is that clear? All right, it might be difficult to define a ship or a boat, but most sailors certainly know a ship when they see one bearing down on them.”
There is a little ” nautical dictionary” making the rounds that pokes fun at nautical terminology with elaborate (but wrong) definitions. This is not that sort of book. Jack has fun with the terms, but he gives correct explanations. Leeward (pron. ‘loo-w’d’), for example, has this entry: “the side of a sailing boat presently away from the wind; see windward. If you are feeling seasick, make sure you know which side this is.”
Jack Lagan has fun with our favorite pastime. And we, recognizing his good intentions and sense of humor/humour, have fun with his new book.
A-B-Sea: A Loose-Footed Lexicon by Jack Lagan (Sheridan house, 2003; 352 pages)