Seafaring Lore & Legend|
Peter D. Jeans
International Marine/McGraw Hill, 370 pp, $14.95
More than a dictionary, not quite an encyclopedia, the subtitle of this erudite yet sprightly tome helps define the book with a more detailed description: "A Miscellany of Maritime Myth, Superstition, Fable, and Fact." But even that doesn't cover the full scope and depth of the work. The author has previously written two related books, Ship to Shore: A Dictionary of Everyday Words and Phrases Derived from the Sea and An Ocean of Words: A Dictionary of Nautical Words and Phrases as well as the more general My Word: Digressions on Language, Literature and Life. The plot thickens.
Subjects covered in the book include both legendary voyages and maritime history, pirates, buccaneers, castaways and mutineers, actual geography and lost lands, ship wrecks and disappearances, wraiths, mermaids, monsters and other magical creatures. Author, Jeans is equally comfortable with both fable and fact and he ranges far and wide.
A bit of a mystery man, I could find no detailed biography of the author on the web. He is briefly described as having begun "his love affair with sea more than forty years ago, as an adventurer, an English teacher, a columnist and an avid sailor and writer." Despite the lack of personal or academic detail, I guessed he knew his stuff.
And it turns out, he emphatically does. Jeans has not only an encyclopedic knowledge of his marine subjects; he is what a friend once called me, "a word hound." The friend's comment was more quizzical than complimentary, as though he'd discovered a bizarre but harmless sub-specie of homo-sapiens. That same description applies to Mr. Jeans, however, with high praise. On subjects geographical, he traces modern place names to ancient and even mythical sources. He finds corollaries in diverse and far flung cultures and breaks down current phrases to multiple origins. The result is a riot of light-bulbs of understanding constantly going off in reader's head--a rare sensation in this age of newspeak.
In the "did you ever wonder" department of word derivation, especially, Mr. Jeans is a champ. Salty words, phrases and place names like grog, knot, horse latitudes, traveling POSH, Cape Horn and the Spanish Main are traced back to their historic or pre-historic origins. Many words have multi-language roots. Scurvy, for example, comes from the "Anglo Saxon scurf, scabby, influenced by the French scorbut...and perhaps also by the Russian scrobut, to scratch."
Some expressions (or phrases) like POSH have been falsely attributed and Jeans not only convincingly demonstrates the bygone error but ekes out of the mists the actual rudiments of the expression still in use today.
Among the most surprising stories brought to light by Jean's thoroughly researched etymological and historical explanations of salty words and elaborate legends are the of the very early explorers. Obscure today, Hanno the Navigator, a native of Carthage, a city state in northern Africa may actually have circumnavigated the continent around 500 B.C., or Madoc, a Welsh prince who struck off across the North Atlantic and ended up in Mobile Bay-in 1170. At the time the Earth was considered to be a flat disc with a large river running around its edges. Sail too far and you fall off-probably into the pit of Hell. Exciting stuff-even if the author is a "word hound".
The organization of Seafaring Lore & Legend allows the reader to dip in here and there, or to read full chapters on related subjects. Meticulously indexed and thoroughly documented with end notes, Jeans also provides an extensive bibliography for further reading.
If you want a fun and salty read, this book gives you lots of snippets of real excitement as well as imaginary excess-or if you're looking for a jumping off place for research into some salty conundrum, Seafaring Lore...is a unique source. Any way you choose to use it, you will enjoy the read.