July 2001
- by Carol Standish

Book Cover With the exception of the recently made efforts on behalf of Patrick O’Brian’s language and vocabulary, a comprehensive dictionary of maritime words and phrases hasn't been compiled in over 40 years. With more new boaters taking to the seas every year, the need is clear. But The Sailor’s Illustrated Dictionary (Lyons Press, 580 pp, b/w illus, $24.95), brandy new for the new millennium, covers more than just the basics. The book contains over 8500 entries including the specialized nautical terms used by merchant seamen, the sea-going military, yachties—both racing and cruising as well as historians and arm chair sailors with a taste for etymology.

“Today’s nautical English is a curious blend of terms, the oldest of which were spokenSquare Rig before Shakespeare’s day and hold their meaning now, and the most modern of which spring fully jargoned and acronymed from the desktop computers of electronics laboratories,” says author/compiler Thompson Lenfestey in his preface to the dictionary. To further complicate things, “much of seamen’s English comes directly to the language not only from other European maritime nations, but from Africa, Asia and Oceania.” And if myriad geographical sources aren’t confusing enough, “as the sailor’s work has changed, we have found it easier to find new meanings for old words than to create new ones…”

Compass CardIn his preface, K. B. Rausch, Chief Warrant Officer of the USCG Eagle, points out another problem, namely that working on the sea “embraces a variety of disciplines” — each with its own language. Essentially, every individual ship creates its own linguistic culture making codification a bear of a task.

Those are a few good reasons for the scarcity of marine dictionaries and The Sailor’s Dictionary has been many years in the making. But Lenfestey, a Navy man and small boat sailor trained in marine science, with the help of his professional mariner son, Captain Thompson Lenfestey, Jr., has prevailed admirably.

Stability and TrimThoroughness and accuracy are the most necessary characteristics of a reference work. Lenfestey has consulted sources as diverse as the Oxford English Dictionary, NOAA, Bowditch’s American Practical Navigator, and other maritime dictionaries dating from 1780 to 1961 .

KnotsIn all 55 reference works both esoteric and familiar are cited bibliographically. Lenfestey’s approach is to describe common usage rather than proscribe correct usage. Each entry includes the part of speech, pronunciation, the definition(s) and examples of usage. Reference is made to other words which clarify the meaning of the entry. Definitions are expressed as simply as possible.

Especially useful is a long appendix full of those pesky acronyms, reason enough to add the book to your reference shelf.

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